On 22 January 2016, the United Kingdom ("UK") became the third member State of the International Labour Organisation ("ILO") to ratify a Protocol to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention ("Convention"), joining Norway and Niger. The Protocol updates the Convention to address the contemporary circumstances of forced or compulsory labour, trafficking in persons and other forms of modern day slavery – in particular, forced labour in the private sector.

We covered the Protocol here when it was adopted by the ILO in June 2014. The Protocol will enter into force on 9 November 2015, being one year after the second ratification by a member State of the ILO (Norway). For each member State that ratifies the Protocol, it will take effect twelve months after the date on which the ratification is registered. Accordingly, the Protocol will become effective for the UK on 22 January 2017.

In brief, the Protocol requires contracting States to take measures to combat forced or compulsory labour and protect victims. The measures include the development of national plans for the suppression of forced labour; educating employers to prevent them becoming involved in forced labour; ensuring that relevant legislation within the State covers all workers and sectors; and supporting due diligence in supply chains to prevent risks of forced labour.

Recent UK Policy Developments on Combatting Forced Labour

The UK's ratification of the Protocol reinforces national legislation in the UK for combatting all forms of slavery and forced or compulsory labour. Having ratified the Protocol, to comply with Article 22 of the ILO Constitution the UK Government will need to include information about the measures it has taken to give effect to it in annual reports to the International Labour Office.

As noted in our previous post, States ratifying the Protocol may be required to introduce new legislation to effectively implement its provisions. In the case of the UK, Parliament took related action in March 2015 by passing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the Act), consolidating the existing offences of slavery and human trafficking whilst increasing the maximum penalty for such offences. For detailed information on the Act and its implications for companies and individuals, see our comprehensive briefing note here.

A key part of the Act is the reporting requirement, which requires businesses with a commercial presence in the UK and a worldwide turnover in excess of £36 million to report annually on steps the business has taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in its supply chains or any part of its own business. Organisations affected by the reporting requirement must prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement (‘Statement’) each financial year.

The UK Home Office issued a Practical Guide to educate the public, consumers, employees and investors about how the UK Government expects organisations to comply with the reporting requirement under the Act. The Guide sets out the basic provisions of the law and advice on what to include in the Statement in order to satisfy the requirements in the legislation.

Implications and commentary

The UK's ratification of the Protocol adds to the growing body of international and domestic laws, regulations and standards that require or encourage the role of due diligence in identifying and avoiding risks to human rights. It is ever more important for businesses operating around the world to consider their policies and practices, and to take measures to comply with applicable laws and international standards.

The move to ratify the Protocol is a sign of the UK Government's leadership in this space, and may be expected to generate momentum for the broader adoption of the Protocol. Though the United States has not ratified the Protocol, the US Government has shown strong support for international efforts to combat human trafficking and forced labour. The US voted in favour of the Protocol in the ILO, and has shown leadership in anti-trafficking efforts through the influential Trafficking in Persons reports produced annually by the Department of State. These reports address a broad scope, including the suppression of forced labour in many forms.

With the Protocol set to enter into force in November this year, we expect further ratifications to follow, and will closely follow related legislative updates in affected jurisdictions.