Today key provisions of the UK's Modern Slavery Act come into force. The Act was one of the last pieces of legislation to be passed before the election and is a clear a source of pride for the conservative government. Certain measures coming into force today have the potential to significantly improve the situation of some exploited workers, and turn attention to the rights of victims. The real work now is making sure that this potential is realised and is built upon to both prevent exploitation and protect victims.
Some of the changes coming into force today include requiring a court to at least consider ordering compensation for a victim following a slavery or trafficking conviction, and extending some legal aid to victims of forced labour and slavery. These measures don't go nearly far enough in guaranteeing access to justice for exploited people, which is still a huge challenge, in particular due to the lack of early and specialist legal advice. However just having these rights to legal assistance and compensation in the Act is notable in helping bring victims' rights to the forefront, and should be considered just the beginning of efforts to promote victims' access to justice.
Key changes to the definitions of forced labour, slavery and servitude will mean that an individual's consent to poor working conditions is irrelevant when force, threats or deception are used. This is important given the number of cases FLEX sees in which migrant workers agree to work in bad conditions, that get worse over time through threats and withholding of wages. This change could put an end to the rejection of victims' trafficking cases by the Government or the courts simply because they initially agreed to undertake the work, and should increase the identification and prosecution of labour exploitation cases.
One change with perhaps the greatest potential is the creation of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Kevin Hyland is the first in this post, and a real opportunity to set an important precedent for critical and constructive oversight of the UK response to modern slavery, by listening to victims and prioritising their human rights. The challenge for Mr Hyland is to maintain the independence he requires to encourage good practice across the whole UK modern slavery response.
Key provisions of the Act that are yet to come include the requirement that companies report on their activities to address slavery in their supply chains and a review of the UK's only labour inspectorate, the Gangmaster's Licensing Authority (GLA). For FLEX these are some of the most significant developments, due to their their focus on preventing modern slavery - an aspect of the UK government's response that has been neglected to date. In particular the review of the GLA opens up the potential for its expansion of its remit beyond its current agricultural sectors, and into other high-risk sectors such as cleaning and construction.
Today's changes provide us with more tools to prevent and detect modern slavery, and to protect the rights of victims. The task now is to ensure the Modern Slavery Act is implemented in a way that uses this potential, and that provides a basis for further strengthening the protection of victims' rights and preventing the exploitation of vulnerable workers.