Adults and children trapped in slavery conjure up stories from centuries past. Unfortunately, it is a modern reality for some, according to Government and UN statistics, and is on an upward trend.

What is the role of mainstream business in tackling modern slavery and other human rights abuses, at home and abroad? What does that role mean in practice for HR practitioners? The Modern Slavery Bill, currently expected to receive royal assent before the general election, answers some of these questions, including a proposed new legal duty for many businesses.

Background

In recent years, many consumer facing multi-national companies have been paying increasing attention to a developing global business and human rights agenda. Allegations of modern slavery, trafficking, sweatshops, unsafe working conditions and long, corruptible supply chains are just some of the issues threatening businesses and their reputations. Now, attention is turning to domestic employers as human rights abuses, in particular slavery and trafficking, are uncovered in British supply chains.

What is the role of business?

Many employers and national governments, together with global organisations such as the UN and OECD, have moved on from asking whether businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights to identifying what their human rights role is in practice.

This role includes having human rights policies, training key personnel, identifying and addressing breaches of human rights and putting in place mechanisms by which problems can be raised, such as whistle-blowing hotlines. Importantly, these responsibilities extend beyond the company’s own operations and include supply chains, although it is recognised that this is more challenging due to the lack of direct control.

Britain’s Modern Slavery Bill, for example, will require companies (above a certain turnover threshold – to be confirmed) to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure that their own businesses and their supply chains are ‘slavery free’. EU legislation, to be implemented by 2016, takes this disclosure requirement further and impacts both private and public sector employers.

What is the role of HR?

In some organisations, HR is playing a key role in introducing human rights policies and training as well as implementing risk analysis audits, due diligence, hotlines, monitoring and more. In others, HR is working cross-functionally, alongside CSR, Legal, Compliance, Procurement and others, to address slavery and other human rights risks in the business and supply chain.

For those HR practitioners new to this area, there is a wealth of reference material on the UN human rights and Global Compact websites. Our tailored training and consultancy services have also helped employers gain traction more quickly in an area which is frequently challenging and rewarding in equal measures.

The role of trade unions and other pressure groups

Increasingly, global and national trade unions are actively targeting businesses they believe have weak points when it comes to human rights. Corporate campaigns, using social media to ‘name and shame’ employers and taking complaints about supply chain working conditions to the OECD, have been successful in taking human rights into the Boardroom as investors, shareholders, customers and other stakeholders react to adverse publicity. For those companies vulnerable to such corporate campaigns, HR is instrumental in putting the company in the best place to respond.