UK probes its own supply chains to offer lead on modern slavery

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 March 2020 18:34 GMT

Workers walk in London, Britain, September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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Electronics, construction and service providers of cleaners and cooks identified as the riskiest sectors for slave labour

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain vowed on Thursday to tackle modern slavery in government supply chains as it shared an action plan to encourage other countries to follow suit, acknowledging a tough road ahead.

The British government identified electronics, construction and service providers of cleaners and cooks as the riskiest sectors for slave labour, and said it had worked with about 400 of its suppliers to improve their anti-slavery measures.

"As a government we don't have to produce this statement. But we want to," Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

"Because the brutal truth is that modern slavery will endure only as long as it is profitable for the criminals – and it will only remain profitable as long as businesses and governments are prepared to look the other way," he said in a statement.

Britain's 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires companies whose turnover exceeds 36 million pounds ($43.6 million) to produce an annual statement detailing the actions they have taken to combat slavery in their operations, but does not include public bodies.

Public procurement is estimated to account for 15-20% of global gross domestic product, yet campaigners say efforts to combat supply chain slavery have been mostly led by big brands.

The British government - which spends about 50 billion pounds a year on goods and services - said it had tens of thousands of suppliers and that many had complex global supply chains where "effective oversight is difficult to achieve".

Labour rights groups welcomed the plan but urged the government to widen the scope of the Modern Slavery Act - to cover bodies such as the National Health Service (NHS) and local councils - and to take action against unscrupulous suppliers.

The law has faced widespread criticism in recent years and come under government review, amid calls for it to follow Australia's 2018 legislation that forces public bodies to join companies in disclosing how they address the risk of slavery.

"The public sector spends billions of pounds of taxpayers' money, and we should be confident this money is not spent on goods or services produced with the use of forced labour," said Chloe Cranston, a representative for Anti-Slavery International.

Three-quarters of about 18,650 firms required to comply with Britain's anti-slavery law have issued statements, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.

However 29 of the nation's 100 biggest suppliers did not meet the legal requirement in 2018, research by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell found last year.

In its plan, the government said firms that bid for public contracts yet had flouted the law in the last three years risked being knocked back unless they could demonstrate improvements.

"The government must ... ensure that its suppliers hear the message loud and clear that exploiting ... workers to fulfil government contracts will not be tolerated," said Phil Bloomer, head of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC).

About 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labour - found on farms, factories, and fishing boats - according to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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