#MyFreedomDay is a timely reminder that the UK needs to act more decisively to help eradicate the global scourge of modern slavery.
Modern slavery has many faces: from women forced into prostitution and workers coerced into back-breaking labouring jobs, to children exploited in garment sweatshops. And it is not confined to developing countries: in the UK the number of modern slavery cases rose by more than a third between 2017 and 2018. On 14 March, the #MyFreedomDay event used the power of social media to shine a light on these secretive practices, organise anti-trafficking events and remind the global community of the importance – and fragility – of freedom.
No supply chain among the UK’s private companies and public bodies can rid itself entirely from the risk of labour exploitation, notes deputy director of business change at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) Mark Heath. Potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking tracked through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s national helpline (see Resources) – suggest they are on the rise.
The UK government responded in the form of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which rolled out important measures, including a requirement for business to report on actions to prevent slavery and human trafficking.
However, critics have long complained the legislation lacks any effective punitive measures on transparency (see Slave detectors). Around 40% of eligible companies do not comply with the transparency requirements of the act, an independent review commissioned by the Home Office found, which only reinforces calls for more decisive government action (see Resources, overleaf).
Currently, under section 54 of the act, only a private company with an annual turnover of £36m or more must publish a slavery and human trafficking statement on its website, but there are no serious penalties if it fails to do so. And those who do report can even record merely that they have taken no action.
The review’s final report, published in May last year, presented 80 recommendations to make the legislation more fit for purpose.
The Home Office responded in July, agreeing with most of the amendments and launching a public consultation on transparency in supply chains. It has been proposed to extend the reporting requirements to large public sector organisations not currently captured by the legislation, a move IOSH supports. The consultation closed in September and a Home Office spokesperson told IOSH that it is analysing the feedback with plans to publish its response later this year.
IOSH has developed a CPD course on modern slavery, which will run on 28 July in Cambridge (venue TBC) and 8 December (at The Grange).
Attendees will gain a greater insight into:
- The different forms of modern-day slavery.
- The government strategy and legal framework for the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
- How and why victims become involved in slavery.
- Where victims could be located and identify the signs/risk indicators of how victims may present.
- The tools for assessing and managing risk, preparing a modern slavery statement, and responding to an incident of modern slavery.
- The National Referral Mechanism.
Building on the Cabinet Office’s announcement last September of new measures to ensure central government supply chains are free from modern slavery, the Home Office has also said it will voluntarily publish its first modern slavery statement in the coming months – it was originally planned for December – setting out the steps it has taken to prevent modern slavery.
IOSH continues to advocate that government acts as an exemplar on procurement and has welcomed the Cabinet Office’s procurement policy note (PPN 05/19), which applies to all existing contracts and, from 1 October 2019, any new procurement.
The government has also committed to creating a free, online central reporting service for posting firms’ modern slavery statements. Work is in its early stages and will focus on understanding user needs to inform the service’s design.
IOSH, which delivered its response to the consultation in September, together with its white paper on modern slavery (see Resources), welcomes the development.
Richard Jones, IOSH head of policy and regulatory engagement, says: ‘Better transparency and due diligence on preventing modern slavery in supply chains is a key IOSH public policy call on the new government – urging implementation of the independent review’s recommendations and other improvements.’
Ian Sweet, former director of operations and strategy at the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, on slavery.
When the Modern Slavery Act 2015 first came into force, businesses were encouraged to find slavery and remove it from their supply chains.
However, we’ve given businesses a grace period on doing that. It’s got to the point where we’ve now got to say to big business: ‘If we find it in your supply chain, these are the unlimited fines you are facing.’ Our legislators haven’t really got to grips with that at the moment.
If you wanted to take it to the extreme, you could say the legislation is giving cover to businesses to continue with slavery in their supply chains. I say that because these businesses produce a slavery and human trafficking statement once a year to say what they are doing as almost their insurance policy. That’s as far as they have to go. There needs to be a huge change in relation to eradicating it from the supply chain. It doesn’t matter what businesses say, if they are not compelled to take more decisive action, they won’t.
In particular, IOSH would like to see the government lower the £36m threshold to increase the number of organisations required to make disclosures. It has also called for better quality disclosures and for the government to drop the option for businesses to say they’ve taken no prevention steps. The government has said it will consult further in this area.
The Home Office has twice written to CEOs of businesses identified as being in scope of the legislation, outlining how to meet its obligations. It is currently undertaking an audit of compliance and told IOSH that it may publish a list of non-compliant businesses or seek injunctions against those that fail to comply.
In a further move, the Queen’s speech at the state opening of Parliament in December mentioned a new ‘single enforcement body’ as part of the Employment Bill to offer greater protections for workers. This augments an earlier public consultation that included questions on extending GLAA licensing on agriculture to other high-risk sectors such as construction and hospitality, which IOSH has previously called for. The Home Office has said it will publish its consultation response in the coming months.
So with #MyFreedomDay going viral this month, what can employers do to step up to the plate? As Mark at the GLAA notes, it’s important to create an environment that encourages potential victims to talk to a colleague in confidence about their concerns.
‘One of the things gaining a bit of traction and worth building on is looking at the way workers are treated holistically: worker welfare, wellbeing at work, good work and good recruitment,’ he says.
‘All of those things tied together encourage a conversation in the workplace that might be able to identify where people might be at risk or are even being exploited.’
- 2019 independent review of the Modern Slavery Act: bit.ly/MSA-review
- UK government response to the review: bit.ly/MSA-UKG-response
- IOSH white paper on modern slavery, Tackling modern slavery together: iosh.com/modernslaverywhitepaper
- 2019 UK Annual report on modern slavery: bit.ly/UK-modern-slavery-report
- National Referral Mechanism statistics Q3, 2019: bit.ly/NRM-Q3