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Christmas! Brought To You By Victims Of Modern Slavery

22/12/2016 12:46 GMT | Updated 22/12/2016 12:46 GMT
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Come Christmas Day, many of us will enjoy a turkey dinner with all of the trimmings and not give a second thought to just what went into bringing it to our tables in the first place. If we did, it's probably fair to say that most of us would quickly lose our appetite. And not necessarily for the reasons that most people might initially suspect.

While the sometimes awful conditions that livestock are raised in have come in for plenty of media scrutiny, people are less aware of the fact that a growing number of people employed in food and drink supply chains are subject to sometimes equally shocking working and living conditions. They are in situations of modern day slavery and their number is growing, perhaps because for the first time, companies are finally beginning to look and measure the risk.

In the UK, an estimated 13,000 people are working in situations of modern day slavery in a myriad of different industries, whether that's hospitality, domestic work, agriculture, retail, organ harvesting or the sex trade. And the food industry, due to its complex global supply chains and the fact that it often depends on migrant workers, both in the UK and in our supply chains abroad, is exposed to this like few other sectors.

This problem is perhaps most visible in the run-up to Christmas, when thousands of additional temporary workers are required to help grow, produce and package the food that adorns our plates come the big day. Previous coverage on exploitative labour practices in farming shows that working conditions at some meat processing sites in Ireland and the UK could be better- so what does this mean for our Christmas Turkey? We know that exploitative labour practices are prevalent in certain horticultural industries too, including the production and picking of cabbages, sprouts, onions and potatoes.

That's not to say that progress isn't being made. Last year, the Government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the first piece of UK legislation focusing on the prevention and prosecution of modern slavery and the protection of victims.

The Act stipulates that any business with an annual turnover of £36 million or above is required to provide a statement in a prominent place on its website within six months of the end of the financial year, setting out what steps it has taken to ensure there is no slavery in any part of its business, including its supply chains.

However, so far there has been a deafening silence from business in response to this legislation. Just a small percentage have published statements thus far and, according to figures from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, just 22 of these meet the minimum legal requirements.

So what's holding them back? In some cases it's undoubtedly a case of not knowing where to start. Perhaps there's also a fear that any admission of inactivity or oversight will result in a public and media backlash that businesses would rather avoid - even though hiding such a problem is only likely to make things worse for them in the long run, certainly in terms of reputational damage.

Whatever it is, things need to change and fast. Consumers have a major role to play in all of this too - after all, we're the ones who buy and consume the food at the end of the day. And yet most people are oblivious to the problem. Recent research commissioned by the team here at the University of Hull's Wilberforce Institute for the study of slavery and emancipation found that more than half of us (55%) admit to not being aware of the most common signs of slavery*. Clearly, greater education in this area is urgently required.

To help businesses and consumers to better spot the signs of modern slavery, the Wilberforce Institute has compiled the following advice:

• Confinement: Victims may seem under the control of or being influenced by someone else, they may rarely interact with others.

• Living conditions: Victims' work and home addresses may be the same and they may be living in unhygienic, cramped or overcrowded accommodation

• Physical and psychological signs: Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse such as appearing detached, or looking dishevelled and malnourished

• Lack of identification: Victims may have few personal possessions, no identification documents, and wear unsuitable/similar clothing day in day out

• Little freedom of movement: Victims have limited opportunity to move freely and have had their travel documents such as their passport taken off them

• Unusual travel times: Victims are often transported at unusual times when going to work or moving accommodation, either very early or late at night

*YouGov survey, commissioned by the University of Hull. Total sample size was 1,672 adults, with fieldwork undertaken between 29-30 September 2016.