Emily Soothill talks about the new Modern Slavery Act, and why it doesn't go far enough to protect victims of human trafficking

Over the last year, the scourge of modern slavery has received unprecedented global attention.

Reports of Burmese and Cambodian fishermen working as slaves in Thailand to catch fishmeal for prawns sold in supermarkets in the US, UK and Europe and the abuse of migrant workers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have caused a public outcry.

In the UK, common forms of modern slavery include:

  • forced labour in the agricultural, construction and service industries;
  • domestic servitude;
  • sexual exploitation; and
  • criminal exploitation, including cannabis cultivation, street crime and forced benefit fraud

The most recent figures from the UK’s National Crime Agency show that in 2013 2,744 potential victims of trafficking were encountered. It is likely that the true number of trafficked persons in the UK is far higher due to the hidden nature of the phenomenon.

Governments have been struggling to put together legislative and policy frameworks which can effectively combat modern slavery. In the UK, this culminated in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the Act), which consolidates existing offences and introduces important provisions regarding the treatment of victims of slavery and trafficking, receiving royal assent on 26 March 2015. The Act is an important step forward.

Particular achievements include:

  • the new defence for victims of modern slavery who commit an offence because of their slavery or trafficking;
  • the expansion of legal aid to include applications for leave to enter or to remain in the UK, claims under employment law and claims for damages by victims of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour; and
  • the appointment of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to encourage good practice on the prevention of modern slavery offences and the identification of victims.

In terms of corporate accountability, the requirement for large companies, which carry on a business, or, part of a business, in the UK to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement is particularly significant.

However, it does not go far enough. Companies are able to comply by putting in the statement that they have not taken any steps to ensure that slavery is not taking place in their supply chains.

The Act also fails to capitalise on other opportunities to stop modern slavery. A proposal to include specific civil wrongs of trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour in the Act would have greatly assisted victims of slavery and trafficking in seeking justice. However, this was rejected by the House of Lords. Civil society groups, including Liberty and Kalayaan, have also been critical of the Act’s failure to protect migrant domestic workers, one of the groups most at-risk of modern slavery.

A proposed amendment to the Act which would have enabled domestic workers to change their employer (within the same sector) and extend their visas was passed in the House of Lords, only to be rejected by the House of Commons.

Challenges in the fight against modern slavery remain, particularly for victims of slavery and trafficking who wish to seek civil redress for the suffering they have experienced from those who profit from their exploitation.

We will be considering the legal options available to victims of slavery and trafficking in our further blog posts on modern slavery this week.

Key facts

  • Forms of modern slavery include debt bondage, forced labour, child slavery, forced marriage and human trafficking
  • The ILO estimates that there are 21 million victims of forced labour worldwide
  • 68% of modern slavery victims are in forced labour exploitation,
  • 22% are in forced sexual exploitation and
  • 10% work in state-imposed forms of forced labour
  • 55% of modern slavery victims are women and girls and 45% are men and boys
  • Modern slavery generates $150 billion in illegal profits each year