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UK companies must answer for modern slavery in supply chains

by Sara Thornton | @UKAntiSlavery | UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner
Saturday, 17 October 2020 08:00 GMT

ARCHVIE PHOTO: "Alicia," a Rwandan woman, who was brought from Africa to a south London apartment and forced to have sex while her captor collected her earnings, is seen at the Helen Bamber Foundation in central London April 11, 2008. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico/Files

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

Ahead of Anti-Slavery Day, Britain's commissioner Sara Thornton says no company can be complacent about trafficking

Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM is the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner

It’s five years since the UK Modern Slavery Act was passed, and consequently five years since companies with a turnover above £36 million have been required to report on how they are addressing modern slavery risks in their supply chains. This was the first national legislation of its kind, and, with an estimated 16 million people trapped in forced labour globally, recognition that business has a crucial role to play in the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking.

Section 54 – the transparency in supply chains part of the Modern Slavery Act – was a late addition to the legislation, and hard fought for by NGOs and responsible businesses that didn’t want to be commercially disadvantaged for their more humane business models. It was hoped that public reporting would drive up standards, triggering a race to the top.

Half a decade on, I’m encouraged to see some businesses responding proactively to this experimental form of legislation. The trailblazers are using strategic analysis to learn lessons, educate and incentivise staff while setting meaningful goals for year on year improvement. The rest of the pack lag behind on ambition and impact, but it is positive to see reluctant businesses beginning to comply, thanks to the engagement of NGOs, ethical investors and academics, as well as proactive procurement professionals.

The government’s response to the public consultation on transparency in supply chains should inject new energy into this process. Setting an annual reporting deadline and mandating six areas of disclosure should make it easier to compare and contrast corporate activity. Transparency should be further supported by the requirement to file statements on a free-to access public online registry, currently under development.

With an annual spend of £250 billion, the public sector has powerful influence on business, so I warmly welcome government moves to bring public bodies within reporting requirements. I hope that the legislation required to implement all these new measures is developed at pace.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed significant weaknesses in business models and supply chains. While the government proposals go some way to addressing concerns, I am not convinced that these measures will be enough to tackle exploitation: the majority of businesses still fail to connect the impact of their operational and purchasing decisions on the most vulnerable workers in the farms, fields and factories around the world.

Recent stories about the Leicester textiles industry have brought the issue closer to home.

In her report on boohoo, Alison Levitt QC found evidence of unacceptable working conditions, underpayment of workers, serious health and safety violations and widespread neglect of employee’s rights in the company’s supply chain. The abuses had been going on for some years. But Levitt also concluded that there was no evidence that Boohoo broke the law.

Levitt’s findings may be correct. As the current law stands, companies do not have to report abuses in their supply chains, however egregious, nor are they liable for them. Boohoo, after all, published a modern slavery statement.

However, given the power that brands have in shaping the market it would be unfair to shift all the blame onto the suppliers. Expecting enforcement agencies to police every supply chain is also unrealistic.

While I am not arguing that all the labour abuses identified in Levitt’s report are modern slavery, I have been struck by the irrelevance of the Section 54 requirement to the debate.  But in the scramble for new solutions –such as licensing or hot goods– we must be careful not to sign up to panaceas that give business the comfort of appearing to improve, while failing to offer any genuine safeguards to a workforce.

There are growing calls for the introduction of mandatory human rights due diligence (MHRDD) for businesses. France has the Duty of Vigilance Law, although it captures a fraction of the business that Section 54 does. The European Union is considering how to embed MHRDD into its forthcoming Green Deal legislation. Supporters argue that, when combined with the threat of civil penalties, MHRDD would force companies to become more proactive in monitoring and safeguarding workers in their supply chains.

Much would depend on the execution and scope of the legislation, but if companies or sectors show no willingness to reform, the argument for making organisations liable for their decisions becomes increasingly compelling.

Operation Fort, the UK’s largest modern slavery trial to date, is a case in point. A Polish organised criminal gang managed to supply an estimated 400 victims to the supply chains of some of the UK’s largest household names  - DIY chains and supermarkets – over several years. This happened in a sector where labour is licensed, and brands are more often held to account by consumers.

As Operation Fort illustrates, even companies that are further ahead on the human rights agenda have no room for complacency.