OPINION: UK’s Modern Slavery Act will not prevent forced labour in China

by Patricia Carrier | Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
Thursday, 25 February 2021 08:52 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A woman looks towards dark clouds over the Houses of Parliament in central London August 11, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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Stronger legislation is needed to tackle modern slavery in global supply chains of British businesses

Patricia Carrier is the project manager of the Modern Slavery Registry at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Last month, Britain’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced a series of measures designed to ensure British companies are not complicit in, nor profiting from, human and labour rights abuse of the Uyghur in China, up to and including fines for companies that fail to report under the UK Modern Slavery Act (the MSA).

 

While this may sound strong, the reality behind the headlines is a flimsy paper exercise. To pass the government’s threshold, all companies have to do is remember to file an annual statement, which can be as short as a single sentence. This is because the MSA has failed in its central purpose to effectively tackle forced labour in supply chains.

 

Established nearly six years ago, the MSA was hailed as a landmark piece of legislation which would encourage UK business to remove modern slavery from its operations and supply chains. Yet in practice the provisions of the MSA require a trifling level of reporting, not monitored or enforced. It is therefore small wonder it failed to drive systemic corporate action to end forced labour, even in high-risk sectors and regions. While it has raised awareness of the prevalence of modern slavery and encouraged a cluster of leading companies and investors to do more, ultimately, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s analysis of over 16,000 statements during the five years it ran its Modern Slavery Registry showed no significant improvements in the vast majority of companies’ policies, practice or performance.

Despite six years of persistent non-compliance by two in five companies, not a single injunction or administrative penalty (such as exclusion from lucrative public procurement contracts) has been applied to a company for failing to report. Any expectation it would be an effective tool to address the egregious human rights abuses faced by a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and others around the world forced into modern slavery, would be sorely mistaken.

 

It’s clear the UK has fallen behind other countries when it comes to compelling companies to take action to tackle forced labour. In response to the Uyghur crisis, the US has used Section 307 of the Tariff Act to ban products from Xinjiang province produced with forced labour, And similar measures have recently been announced by Canada and Australia.

 

Import bans, based on trade laws, are one way to address the use of forced labour in the production of goods and they can drive results – rubber manufacturing company Top Glove agreed to repay recruitment fees to migrant workers producing rubber gloves in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic when the US imposed a ban on these goods. However, they do not require companies to prevent those human rights abuses from occurring in the first place or provide access to remedy for victims or hold companies liable for these harms. A much more effective approach are laws which regulate supply chains for the clear purpose of protecting human and labour rights, like the French ‘duty of vigilance’ law and those that will soon be introduced by the European Union that mandate companies to ensure that human rights abuses aren’t happening in thier operations. Import bans could be used as complementary to these laws, an approach that is being considered by the European Parliament.

 

Despite recent political debate suggesting it is the silver bullet to end forced labour, the MSA does not place any legally binding standards on companies to undertake efforts to effectively address risks of labour exploitation in their business operations. In fact, the MSA explicitly states  a company may publish a statement that says it has taken no steps to address modern slavery risks during the financial year and yet still be compliant with the law.

 

A failure to prevent human right and environmental harms law, as proposed by stakeholders in the UK, would provide a stronger, overarching approach to tackling irresponsible business conduct across all human rights – putting the onus on companies to ensure abuses don’t happen and holding them to account when they do. It would not isolate modern slavery from other labour abuse, dismantling the notion that ‘lesser’ labour abuse is an acceptable part of doing business that does not require urgent attention.

 

The UK government has the opportunity to learn from the Modern Slavery Act and enact a law that will better protect the estimated 25 million victims of forced labour worldwide. With stronger laws being developed around the world, British companies are asking for legal harmonisation to ensure a level playing field. The government also has the responsibility to better protect the most vulnerable workers in global supply chains who are disproportionately impacted by disruptions and instability, including the Uyghurs and those worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further increased the risk to workers of forced labour. A failure to prevent law has the potential to go beyond tackling modern slavery and pave the way to providing decent work and fair treatment for all workers. 

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