By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Mar 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Businesses in Britain seeking to tackle labour abuses and modern slavery in their supply chains should feel able to speak out without fearing unduly harsh punishments, the new head of the nation's anti-slavery agency has said.
Britain will only reach a tipping point in its anti-slavery drive if companies from construction firms to fashion giants feel that they can "come to the table", said Michael Rich, chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).
Anti-trafficking activists and lawmakers say Britain has been too soft on business and that its world-first 2015 Modern Slavery Act has not driven enough companies to examine their supply chains or boost efforts to root out exploitation.
"Where needed, we'll pursue those firms that are flagrantly abusing workers," said Rich, whose agency was given police-style powers in 2017 and a wider remit to investigate labour offences across the economy.
"But there are a lot of companies that want to do the right thing," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We want them to be confident to come and talk to us, work with us to be compliant, and know that we won't be inappropriately punitive."
Under the law, firms with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds ($47 million) must issue an annual statement outlining steps they have taken to identify the risk of forced labour in their operations.
But there are no punishments for businesses that fail to do so, and 38 percent of the about 17,000 companies required to comply with the law have not yet issued a statement, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.
In a government-ordered review of the law, three politicians in January urged Britain to introduce penalties, ranging from fines and court summons to disqualifying company directors.
However, Rich, who took up the post in January following the death of his predecessor said pursuing partnerships over heavy-handed punishments was the best way forward for the GLAA.
"The only way to get to a tipping point in the fight (against modern slavery) ... has to be a longer-term preventative plan, and we need businesses to feel they can work with us and government to put the right standards in place."
The GLAA has teamed up with more than 100 construction firms and six top fashion brands from Marks & Spencer to John Lewis to tackle labour abuses and slavery in the respective industries.
Yet Caroline Robinson, director of charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said the partnerships would be unlikely to stop modern slavery as they excluded workers and trade unions.
"The GLAA was founded to protect workers from cases of abuse and exploitation, it can only achieve this by listening to workers and being tough on those who wish them harm," she said.
The agency said it had made about 150 arrests of people suspected of labour exploitation between May 2017 and last November, launched more than 200 investigations and identified at least 3,000 workers suffering from some form of labour abuse.
These numbers are likely to rise and more possible victims should be referred to the government for support as the GLAA seeks to tackle the "more serious end of the spectrum", said Rich, who stressed the need to engage with the British public.
One in five people in Britain is unaware of modern slavery, found a poll released last week by British supermarket Co-op, despite the fact that about 136,000 people are estimated by the Walk Free Foundation to be living as slaves across the country.
"(But) the public are increasingly aware of the issue," Rich said. "They realise that if they're only paying 5 quid (pounds) for a car wash, then there is probably exploitation going on." ($1 = 0.7583 pounds) (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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