On July 30, 2016, newly-elected British Prime Minister, Theresa May, wrote an article detailing how her government would lead the charge in combatting modern slavery. As a major proponent of the UK Modern Slavery Act (and one who played a key role in the Act’s passage as former Home Secretary), May pledged to make it her personal mission to help eradicate the “barbaric evil” of slavery and human trafficking, calling it the “great human rights issue of our time.” In doing so, she announced the allocation of £33 million from her aid budget to create a 5-year International Modern Slavery Fund focused on high-risk countries.
On the heels of her announcement, an independent review conducted by barrister Caroline Haughey, and commissioned by the Prime Minister herself, was published online. The goal of the review was to “ensure that the Modern Slavery Act, even in its infancy, is fulfilling the intentions of the legislature.” Among the findings were that more victims were identified as operational agencies began to utilize the powers given to them by the Act and, at the same time, there has been an increase in the number of police investigations, prosecutions and convictions. Nevertheless, the review called for greater consistency in how law enforcement and criminal justice agencies deal with modern slavery with special attention paid to additional witness protections, training for police officers, investigators, and prosecutors and a more structured approach in identifying, investigating, prosecuting and preventing slavery. Along these lines, PM May also announced that she would assemble a new cabinet taskforce to coordinate a government response to these issues.
And May is certainly not alone in her concerns about human trafficking. In recent months, the first civil penalty for victims of modern slavery was handed down by Britain’s High Court in a case brought by six Lithuanian men against DJ Houghton Catching Services, Ltd. The men alleged that they were trafficked to the UK and subsequently exploited by the Kent-based gangmaster firm, who tasked them with catching chickens on farms across the country. Notably, the Claimants were confirmed to be victims of trafficking by the UK Human Trafficking Centre or the Home Office. On June 10, 2016, Justice Supperstone charged the company with failing to pay the minimum agricultural wage, unlawfully withholding wages, charging prohibited work-finding fees and failing to provide to men adequate bathroom facilities and meal, sleep and restroom breaks.
The recent emphasis on efforts to combat modern slavery and human trafficking has not changed employers’ obligations under the UK Modern Slavery Act, including those with respect to supply chain transparency and the related reporting requirements under Section 54. It is abundantly clear, however, that the British government intends to continue investing considerable time and resources in the development of an operational framework to properly address and combat practices that violate the Act. Commercial organizations subject to the Act that conduct business in the UK (regardless of where they are based) should take notice of these efforts and continue to conduct the due diligence necessary to ensure that their business and supply chains are compliant.