The Blog

British Business Is Failing Modern Day Slaves

On the face of it, a construction site, nail bar, car wash or cannabis farm don't have much in common, do they? Well, the answer is more than you might think, as they're all industries that are implicated in modern day slavery.
Todor Tsvetkov via Getty Images

On the face of it, a construction site, nail bar, car wash or cannabis farm don't have much in common, do they? Well, the answer is more than you might think, as they're all industries that are implicated in modern day slavery.

And it's not just these sectors that are affected. In the UK, an estimated 13,000 people are working as slaves in hospitality, domestic servitude, agriculture, retail, organ harvesting and the sex industry. And if there is any doubt as to the magnitude of the problem globally, the UN says modern slavery and trafficking is now the second-largest criminal industry in the world, with the International Labour Organisation putting annual profits from forced labour at $150bn.

Unsurprisingly, more and more of us are, either directly or indirectly, coming into contact with forced labour whether that's through the clothes we wear, the food we consume, or where we clean the car.

And yet most people are oblivious to a problem that's often hidden in plain sight. Indeed, new research commissioned by the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull has found that less than one in ten people (8%) are aware of the real scale of the problem in the UK, with a third of people wrongly believing that slavery only affects women. It's perhaps not surprising then that more than half of us (55%) admit to not being aware of the most common signs of slavery.*

So when Theresa May and her 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, there was reason to believe that we were about to make major inroads into tackling this ever-present problem.

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. For businesses with a financial year running from April to March, this meant 30 September 2016, the first important deadline. The Act has teeth, too. If a business fails to produce a statement, it could find itself at the sharp end of a high court injunction requiring the organisation to comply and, potentially, an unlimited fine.

However, so far there has been a deafening silence from business in response to this legislation. The indications are that businesses have either been unresponsive or waiting until the last possible moment to put something out. 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.

It's not just big business that is being slow to take the issue of modern slavery seriously, either. In August, it was reported that only 100 British companies had signed up to the Transparency in the Supply Chain database, which allows firms to confidentially admit when they find their suppliers using enslaved workers.

So what's holding them back? In some cases, it's undoubtedly a case of not knowing where to start, or having to collect data that hitherto simply hasn't existed. 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, it needs to stop. The Government can only begin to tackle the problem effectively with business support. The current lack of support is disappointing. Now is the time for businesses to take a stand and show their commitment to addressing an issue which will only worsen without their backing.

Modern day slavery is a tough nut to crack. So it requires not just tough talk, but tough action. While I welcome the Government's moves to address the problem, here at the University of Hull's Wilberforce Institute, we have a few more suggestions to help encourage businesses to show they are serious about fighting modern slavery:

• Consider immediate fines for those companies which don't reply under the terms of the Modern Slavery Act

• Companies could establish independent whistleblowing mechanisms where workers can report issues. Although it is not immediately clear how this can be done or by whom, there is already a reported upturn in slavery-related civil claims in the UK

• Make the reporting process as transparent as possible, supporting the call of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre for a free and open-access registry of slavery and trafficking statements

• Increase empowerment and give workers information in a language they understand, explaining their rights around pay, hours, holiday and benefits

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