Modern slavery

Time to act

Companies need to be vigilant about possible labour exploitation in their supply chains and by contractors, both in the UK and overseas, and ensure they are behaving ethically.

Image credit | Alamy
Modern slavery is on the rise in the UK, and with it the impetus to take action (see ‘IOSH calls for action’ box, below). 

If your organisation is part of a supply chain, it is likely that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 affects you. With proposed changes to the legislation out for consultation, businesses would do well to improve their understanding of the issues, and of the risks involved if they fail to act.

If exploitative labour is found in a company’s supply chain, reputational damage, the loss of customer confidence and diminishing market share may result. The business could even face legal sanctions if its suppliers or contractors are involved in illegal conduct. On the other hand, a record of ethical procurement activity can encourage investment and improve employee morale.

Face of modern slavery 

Modern slavery encompasses a range of human rights abuses: from forced labour, bonded labour and human trafficking to servitude and child labour. Victims of modern slavery are unable to leave their place of exploitation, and are controlled by threats, punishment, violence, coercion and deception. 

The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates that Britain is home to 136,000 slaves, while the National Crime Agency identified 6,993 people as potential victims of trafficking in that year – up 36% from 5,142 in 2017. 

Modern slavery in wealthier nations such as the UK is particularly lucrative for traffickers. Chronic skills shortages, and falling numbers of EU workers since the referendum on Brexit in 2016, have exacerbated the problem.

The nationalities most at risk of modern slavery in 2017, according to the UK government’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM), were Albanian, Chinese, Nigerian, Vietnamese and, surprisingly, British.

Many foreign workers are unaware of their rights as employees, and may be unable to communicate because of language restrictions. There are also clear links between trafficking, modern slavery and homelessness, charities have found.

Since slavery can take many forms, ranging from a refusal to provide holiday pay to imprisoning workers, it can be difficult to spot, and the individuals could be working in legitimate businesses. 

Construction ranks second only to the sex industry as the sector most prone to exploitation, according to a report last year from the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). Other industries identified as most at risk in the UK include agriculture, hotels and restaurants, care homes, car washes, cleaning and nail salons.


IOSH calls for action

IOSH calls on safety and health professionals and other business advisers to:
  • ensure they know about the risks of modern slavery when advising businesses.
We call on organisations to:
  • train workers on preventing modern slavery
  • take more action to support suppliers
  • create a race to the top via better transparency. 
We call on the government to:
  • adopt the Modern Slavery Act review’s recommendations
  • lower the £36m reporting threshold
  • drop the option for businesses to say they have taken no steps
  • run national awareness campaigns
  • explore a labelling system
  • extend UK gangmasters licensing to other at-risk sectors
  • act as an exemplar on procurement (see PPN 05/19).
We call on the global community to:
  • support Sustainable Development Goal eight
  • standardise and harmonise reporting requirements.


Current legislation

Private companies with a turnover of more than £36m a year fall under the Modern Slavery Act. Under s 54, these organisations must publish an annual ‘slavery and human trafficking statement’ on their website, setting out the steps they have taken to ensure goods produced, or services provided, by their suppliers and contractors are free of modern slavery. Therefore, you should be asking your contractors and suppliers to disclose their policies and provisions to tackle this issue. 

At present, it is compulsory only to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement, and it is acceptable for companies that meet the threshold to say they have not taken any action. 

The Modern Slavery Act was considered groundbreaking when it came into force, but critics say that the lack of enforcement penalties has led to low levels of compliance and a lack of true buy-in from senior leadership.

In fact, an independent review of the legislation, commissioned by the Home Office, found that around 40% of eligible companies do not comply with it. The Home Office’s final report, published on 22 May, made 80 recommendations to strengthen the laws.

The government responded in July, agreeing with most of the suggested amendments. It also issued a public consultation to collect feedback on the proposed changes (see IOSH box, below).

The lack of enforcement penalties has led to low levels of compliance and a lack of true buy-in from senior leadership


IOSH activities 

Exploitation and forced labour are a global scourge afflicting millions of lives. So, what can be done to halt them? Modern slavery affects all countries, including the UK, and many different sectors, so we need global, national, sectoral and corporate strategies and progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly goal eight on decent work for all.

Health and safety are a fundamental right for all workers, and improved transparency and due diligence can ensure this is a reality.

Responsible employers are already taking action, and IOSH urges others to do so, with a ‘race-to-the-top’ that prevents modern slavery thriving in silence. Our poll shows strong public support for more action to help eradicate these crimes hidden in plain sight. Our highest percentage of respondents, 88%, supported the need for professionals to understand modern slavery risks, underlining the importance the public attaches to this.

IOSH is active in this area and so far has:

  • provided continuing professional development training on modern slavery;
  • supported bringing in the UK Modern Slavery Act and transparency in supply chains;
  • joined Baroness Young’s Let’s Make it Work campaign to strengthen reporting;
  • supported Fashion Revolution to improve conditions for garment workers worldwide;
  • co-funded the OSH initiative for workers and community in Bangladesh, post-Rana Plaza;
  • joined the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority’s Construction Forum;
  • participated in #MyFreedomDay with students and supporters across the globe;
  • used a poll to support IOSH’s white paper Tackling Modern Slavery Together and transparency in supply chains consultation.
For further information, email: publicaffairs@iosh.com


Hard Act to follow?

The government accepted many of the recommendations on enhancing transparency in supply chains. For example, it intends to set up a single reporting deadline to identify those not reporting and to publish an online register on which all statements would be submitted, recorded and made publicly available. 

The government also agreed that public authorities, as well as listed companies, should publish a statement if their annual budget exceeds £36m. This should drive up compliance rates, and the quality of statements from companies wishing to win public contracts.

However, the government has not committed to automatically banning any company that fails to comply with s 54 from winning public contracts. It notes only that there are processes in place to identify such companies, and that refusal on these grounds is permissible.

The government also rejected the recommendation that it should impose sanctions on companies that fail to respond when instances of modern slavery arise. And it has not committed to removing the clause under s 54 that allows companies to report that they have taken ‘no steps’ to address modern slavery and human trafficking. 

However, in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation in August, Sara Thornton, the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, said: “Civil sanctions is something we need to move towards. If you are sitting on the board of a big company and don’t get GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] right, or health and safety right, then there are big sanctions.”

Thornton said holding businesses to account, strengthening law enforcement and victim support would form the backbone of her strategy, which is set to be published shortly. 

Beyond compliance

In July, police broke up the UK’s largest modern slave ring, involving 400 workers trafficked from Poland. After a four-year investigation, eight defendants in two trials were found guilty of their involvement. 

Successful prosecutions such as these are making both the public and potential service users increasingly aware of bonded labour and human rights issues in supply chains. They are supporting – if not demanding – that businesses act to implement ethical sourcing programmes. The moral obligation to stamp out modern slavery is ramping up, and failure to take effective actions across your operations and supply chains is likely to attract bad publicity. 

As we await the legal outcome of the review of the Modern Slavery Act, the legislation has been gathering momentum of its own accord. Eligible organisations are expected to build on their transparency statements year on year, and more companies that fall below the £36m threshold – along with organisations in the public sector – are voluntarily providing transparency statements, and quizzing their contractors and suppliers about their approach to modern slavery. 

In September, the Cabinet Office announced new measures to ensure government supply chains are free from modern slavery. This took the form of new guidance, a digital tool and a training package to tackle the problem, with actions taken by departments to inform the government’s first modern slavery statement due out later this year.

In the construction sector, the common assessment standard (CAS) – a new pre-qualification system based on an industry-agreed question set, delivered by assessment bodies including CHAS – features questions around the Act. 

The CAS represents a big step forward for the construction industry, not just in improving efficiency and reducing costs within the construction pre-qualification process, but also in helping to ensure that issues such as modern slavery are addressed as standard. 

To stay ahead of the curve, businesses would be wise to underpin transparency statements with rigorous risk-mapping of their operations and supply chains, and commit resources to identifying and remedying abuses (see ‘Best practice’ box). 

Improving collaboration across the sector in which you operate will ensure your business is not merely compliant with the legislation, but well placed to develop and implement a proven approach to tackling modern slavery. 


Best practice 

Increase your organisation’s understanding of modern slavery: Awareness of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and an appreciation of how to recognise incidents, are important first steps. Your organisation should understand what modern slavery is, what its own responsibilities are and how the issue affects business, and produce a best- practice framework for tackling the issue.
Equip your staff with educational tools and resources: For example, you can register free on the Stronger2gether website to download free resources, worker posters and templates to help your businesses to tackle modern slavery. Posters such as ‘How to spot the signs of slavery’ can promote a culture of vigilance.
Be a leader, not a follower: Use your acquired knowledge to implement best practice in your business, and share your approach across your supply chain and the wider industry. 


IOSH is running a Modern Slavery CPD course at the Grange on 5 February. For more information, click here.



is managing director of CHAS

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