The Modern Slavery Act 2015 received Royal Assent on 26 March 2015. Consolidating the current offences relating to trafficking and slavery, the Act specifically tackles modern slavery and human trafficking around the world and is a clear indication of the Government’s determination to ensure that the United Kingdom is at the forefront of the global fight against this heinous violation of human rights. 

The Act has created two new civil orders to prevent modern slavery; established an Anti-Slavery Commissioner; and makes provision for the protection of modern day slavery victims. A successful prosecution under the Act can attract the maximum penalty of life imprisonment and a harsh asset-confiscation regime. In addition, there now exists slavery and trafficking prevention orders to include maritime enforcement. The protection of the victims has been a key focus in the drafting of the legislation to enable them to be protected rather than prosecuted for criminal activities they were coerced into performing by their slave masters. 

Of note to businesses is that the Act includes a requirement for transparency in supply chains. This provision is not restricted to UK entities only. The transparency provision itself will apply to any commercial organisation which supplies goods or services and has a total turnover which is to be prescribed by the Secretary of State. 

The Home Office is currently consulting on what size of business this new provision will apply to. This is scheduled to close on 7 May 2015 regardless of the UK General Election result. With a provisional implementation date of October 2015, it is clear that UK businesses will not have long to understand this new requirement and its implications before they are required to comply. 

The businesses caught under the Act will be obliged to produce a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year. The statement will disclose steps businesses have taken to ensure their business and supply chains are slavery-free or to provide a statement that no such steps have been taken. Responding in the negative may risk reputational and brand damage. International businesses should also note that for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) tackling exploitation in global supply chains is at the frontline of ITUC action in 2015. They can therefore expect the trend of greater stakeholder attention being paid to annual reports continuing. Indeed, if one of the threshold proposals is accepted, then around 12,000 UK companies will come under the scope of the Act. Clearly supply chain due diligence will have to be both effective and reliable. Ensuring data is legally privileged before it is reported upon will also need to be considered. 

Due to the unseen nature of the crime, it is almost impossible to obtain accurate figures but it is estimated that there are approximately 36 million individuals in the world today subjected to inhumane treatment by way of modern slavery or human trafficking. The modern-day slave cannot be easily identified as the crime will take various forms and will affect people of all ages, gender and races. Forced labour in the private economy generates, according to the International Labour Organisation, US $150 billion in illegal profits per year.  

Teresa May, the Home Secretary, stated that: 'The more we understand about modern slavery, the more we realise how great the challenge is that we face. But the enormity and the complexity of slavery must never be an excuse to think that it cannot be beaten. We must take the fight to the slave drivers and traffickers, catch them, prosecute them and lock them up.

'We must work to raise awareness and spot the signs that people may be victims. We must work together across communities, religions and international boundaries to ensure that the victims of this appalling crime can go free.'