Modern slavery: act now

Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine
Former acting editor, IOSH Magazine

On the first day of its annual conference this year, IOSH launched its white paper, Tackling Modern Slavery Together. The institution is calling on the government and businesses to take concerted action to reduce and eliminate modern slavery practices, both in the UK and overseas.

As November's cover feature notes, exploitative labour has many faces, but the spectrum of human rights abuses includes forced labour, bonded labour, human trafficking, servitude and child labour.

At a time when threats to worker rights have rarely moved from the headlines, it is depressing to discover that Britain could be home to 136,000 slaves. That is the conclusion drawn from the 2018 Global Slavery Index, an independent assessment of government progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 8.7.

The people involved are fellow employees, many of whom are foreign workers who are often unaware of their rights and cannot easily escape exploitation, trapped in an abusive work environment coloured by coercion, deception, punishment, threats and violence, both mental and physical.

For OSH professionals, labour exploitation in the UK is closer to home than many may realise. According to a report from the Chartered Institute of Building published in 2018, construction ranks second only to the sex industry as the sector that is most prone to exploitation. But abusive practices are also being reported in sectors as diverse as agriculture, car washing and care homes.

At the food and drink sector conference on 1-2 October, Mark Heath, deputy director of business change at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), warned delegates that the food services industry, and food packaging and processing, were exceptionally prone to modern slavery practices.

The reality is that labour supply is a lucrative business, and easy pickings for criminal gangs that have been able to infiltrate supply chains. Heath’s message to the profession is to ask questions, to have that sensitive conversation with workers who may be unaware that they are victims.

IOSH has been vocal on this pressing issue. The institution’s white paper urges government to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015 by implementing the recommendations put forward by a Home Office review published in May this year. IOSH argues that transparency and high-quality reporting are crucial to the multi-faceted response needed to stamp out this repulsive practice.

From the local to the global level, IOSH has outlined a plethora of actions that it is urging the profession, organisations, the UK government and the global community to execute. Although many responsible employers are making inroads, much more needs to be done to eradicate labour exploitation. Echoing the GLAA’s speaker, the place to start is at home, and ensure modern slavery is not involved in your operations.


 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner

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