UK anti-slavery law is no silver bullet - but it can get things done

Monday, 17 October 2016 15:56 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

'The Modern Slavery Act is a classic example of why legislation is only ever one part of a solution'

Andrew Wallis is CEO of British anti-slavery charity Unseen

What can other countries learn from Britain’s implementation of the Modern Slavery Act?

We must remember that any legislation is a blunt tool. The Modern Slavery Act has a number of great provisions, including the transparency in supply chains measure. But, legislation is an enabler, a way of opening doors to get things done. Having good legislation is not a silver bullet, but it’s a great step forward and indicates to others that you are taking the issue seriously. The UK is now seen as a world leader and we need to influence others to consider both legislation and practical steps to tackle this scourge on our society. If there’s one thing that other countries could learn from the UK it’s to know and understand that implementing legislation is the start of the journey, not the end. A strong and resilient approach requires effective identification of victims, a strong law enforcement and judicial response and excellent survivor support. Legislation can provide the foundations on which to build such a robust and effective response.

Is Britain's approach to tackling slavery and trafficking sufficiently joined up? What is effective? What could be improved?

The Modern Slavery Act is a classic example of why legislation is only ever one part of a solution. The UK has made great strides in recent years by bringing forward the Modern Slavery Act, but without concerted efforts to implement effectively across the board it will only ever have limited effect. It’s not just about the police doing more or the public being more aware of the issue, it’s about data and systems and breaking down the silos we have created. Admittedly there are good pockets of practice and we should build on those, but it’s about taking a holistic approach that brings partners together rather than dividing them. For too long the UK has been focused on making an impact on the international stage rather than embedding the solid piece of legislation we have brought forward. Roles such as the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner need to be focused on effectively implementing the new requirements in the UK first, before trying to solve problems further afield. How can we really teach others when our own backyard is not quite in order?

When it comes to transparency in supply chains, is this a box-ticking exercise or a meaningful way to get companies to tackle slavery and trafficking at the murkiest ends of their supply chains?

The one thing transparency in supply chains legislation is not, is a tick box exercise. Since its introduction, many have called for more prescriptive legislation with increased penalties for those businesses who fail to comply. Adding prescription would provide an element of certainty – certainty that it would spiral into a tick box exercise! What better way of eliciting a minimal response than requiring all businesses to undertake the same three or four requirements? What would be the response from legal teams across the corporate world – do the minimum possible? The minimum possible under the current provision is all the steps an organisation has taken. Whether that’s three steps or 20 steps businesses will need to document all the steps in order to comply. Businesses can tailor the statement to their needs reflecting the activities they have undertaken and building on those steps year on year. That way we create a race to the top. Businesses are in the driving seat to move this agenda forward and they need to take the initiative. But that also requires a little bit of patience from those who are waiting to hit business hard. Give the provision time to settle down and then turn the screw if sufficient action is not being taken.

Is enough being done to identify victims and provide support for survivors?

There’s been a lot of noise around the Government’s National Referral Mechanism of ‘45 days’ of support for identified survivors. Truth is, that whether it was 45 or 90 days, the present system is nothing more than a safety net temporarily halting someone’s fall down the side of a cliff. Once trafficking status is determined, whether positive or negative, the UK then removes the safety net and the fall continues. What’s needed is a complete overhaul where the focus is on how we help survivors long-term from a position of vulnerability to a place of resilience where they are no longer vulnerable to exploitation. Most survivors we work with at Unseen want to thrive, despite the trauma of modern slavery, but the current system is perfectly designed to deliver the results we have - a safety net temporarily arresting the plunge down the side of a cliff.

The landscape has changed remarkably in just the last five years with the issue of Modern Slavery having gone from a low non-priority issue with limited understanding, confusion, poor response and conflation with immigration, though post-Brexit there is a danger this could reoccur, to now being trumpeted by the new Prime Minister, increased coverage in the media and slowly increasing awareness in the general population and frontline agencies. But we have by no means arrived. This illicit trade in human beings turned into commodities to be bought, sold and exploited for vast profits is predicated on a supply and demand model – demand for cheap goods, services, labour, sex and organs with an endless supply of vulnerable people. Until we begin to grasp this issue of demand by society, or more awkwardly us, for modern slavery we will never be able to eradicate it.