Background: Modern Slavery Act

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) was designed to address the evolving nature of trafficking and slavery in the modern world. It created three types of criminal offences:

  • slavery or servitude, where a person is compelled to provide services under coercion, under circumstances where their liberty is usually denied;
  • forced or compulsory labour, which implied an element of coercion, oppression or deception of the victim; and
  • human trafficking, meaning the arranging or facilitating of a person's travel with a view to their being exploited.

These crimes replaced earlier offences which were dispersed across a number of different laws.

The MSA also introduced new civil orders: Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders (STPOs) and Slavery and Trafficking Risk Orders (STROs). The police, National Crime Agency, immigration officers and labour abuse prevention officers from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) can apply to courts for these orders. If granted they place a restriction on the behaviour and activities of a person who poses a risk of committing offences under the MSA.

In addition, the MSA requires businesses with operations in the UK and annual turnovers of more than £36 million to prepare and publish a yearly slavery and human trafficking statement, outlining how they will recognise and address modern slavery issues in their business and their supply chains.

Leicester: what happened

It is estimated that there are approximately 1,500 textile factories across Leicester. Most of these are small businesses, some operating from workshops in crumbling buildings.

Since lockdown, demand at online retailers has skyrocketed as their competition was forced to close. The textile factories in Leicester supplied much of this boom. Now, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is investigating claims that people were forced to work in unsafe conditions during lockdown, while the National Crime Agency investigates allegations of forced labour. Many of the victims were undocumented immigrants, making them vulnerable to abuse under the threat of deportation.

There are reports that workers were paid well below the national minimum wage of £8.72/hour. MP for Leicester East, Claudia Webbe, has said she has received anonymous reports that standard wages are £2-3/hour. When asked if claims of widespread exploitation in the city are an "open secret", deputy mayor Adam Clarke replied: "You call it an open secret. It's just open."

The wider picture

According to campaign group, the Medaille Trust, there are approximately 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Commentators have cited issues around enforcement as contributing to this bleak picture. There has been a failure to police it or give the legislation "real teeth".

In practice, the alphabet soup of agencies with the authority to enforce the MSA makes investigations incredibly complex. Municipal officials in Leicester report having to liaise between HMRC, the GLAA, the HSE and others.

There have only been seven criminal prosecutions for paying less than the minimum wage since 2010. Enforcement primarily relies on civil penalties. This may not deter the worst serial offenders.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is reportedly considering changes to the MSA. We have yet to see further detail of what this could look like in practice. Overall, the MSA represents a step in the right direction – but ongoing egregious labour practices illustrate a real need to rethink enforcement, effectiveness and funding. Clearly, there is a long way to go yet.