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Britain's top suppliers flout landmark anti-slavery law

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 23 March 2018 11:30 GMT

Britain's Palace of Westminster is silhouetted against the setting sun, London, Britain, December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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Only 58 percent of the government's 100 top suppliers last year met a British legal requirement to outline their actions to combat forced labour within their supply chains

(Adds British government comment)

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain is failing to live up to its promise to lead the world in ending modern slavery as nearly half of the government's biggest suppliers are flouting a landmark anti-slavery law, analysts said on Thursday.

Only 58 percent of the government's 100 top suppliers last year met a British legal requirement to outline their actions to combat forced labour within their supply chains, said a study by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell.

"Amidst growing scrutiny of public procurement, the public needs to be confident that the largest suppliers to government adhere to the highest standards of compliance with legislation on modern slavery," said Gus Tugendhat, founder of Tussell.

The government said it was working to improve how businesses understand and address modern slavery risks, while supporting its departments in managing their procurement activity.

"This government is committed to tackling modern slavery, which is why we introduced Europe's first Modern Slavery Act and are spending 11 million pounds ($15 million) to tackle this barbaric crime," a spokeswoman for Britain's cabinet office said in a statement.

At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery - trapped in forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure is likely to be in the tens of thousands.

Considered a leader in the global anti-slavery movement, Britain passed the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to crack down on traffickers and protect people at risk of being enslaved.

The law requires firms with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds to produce an annual statement showing what they have done to ensure their operations are not tainted by slavery.

More than half of the government's biggest 100 suppliers - representing public contracts worth 27.5 billion pounds - work in construction and real estate, where the risk of modern slavery is particularly high, according to the research.

The study analysed a dozen sectors from education and energy to health and telecoms but did not name individual companies.

"We will only be successful in fighting slavery at home and around the world if we walk our own talk and lead by example," John Morrison, chief executive of Britain's Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), a think tank, said.

"Given that public procurement is a big part of our economy, now is the time for business and government to act," Morrison told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

Only about two-thirds of some 11,000 firms in Britain required to comply with the law have issued statements so far, says the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a pressure group.

There are no penalties for companies that fail to do so - and they can meet requirements by stating they are doing nothing to spot or curb the threat of slavery, campaigners say. ($1 = 0.7087 pounds) (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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