Speed Read: Natasha Reurts provides an overview of the requirements placed on business by the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and discusses various aspects of the framework, similar international trends and future developments in the area.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (“the Act”) applies to both public and private companies and partnerships, regardless of which sector they operate in and whether or not they were incorporated in the UK. These companies are required to comply with the provisions of the Act if they have a global net turnover of over £36million and the company carries on business, or any part of their business, in the UK. Companies who meet this criteria have an obligation to publish a “slavery and human trafficking statement” every year six months after the end of the company’s financial year. In accordance with section 53 of the Act 2015, the statement either outlines the steps that the company has taken during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place within its supply chains or any part of their business. In the alternative, the company can publish a statement stating that the companies has taken no such steps towards the prevention of slavery and human trafficking. Companies whose financial year ended on 31 December 2016 are expected to publish their “slavery and human trafficking statement” within in six months, taking the recommended deadline for publication to 30 June 2017.
More than just a statement on the company’s policies in relation to slavery and human trafficking, the statement can also include information on the companies structure, businesses and supply chains, its due diligence processes in relation to slavery and human trafficking as well as its risk profile and risk mitigation measures. The statement can also detail the steps that are, or will be, taken to train members of staff in relation to slavery and human trafficking and the effectiveness, or otherwise, of measures taken to ensure that slavery and trafficking is not taking place in its business or supply chains. Moreover, if the company is a body corporate (rather than a limited liability partnership) board approval is required before publication of the statement and it must be signed by a director (or equivalent). If the company is a limited liability partnership, the statement must be approved by members and signed by a designated member.
As regards publication of the statement, if the organisations has a website the Act requires the company to publish it statement on the website and include a link to the document in a “prominent place” on that website. Companies without websites are required to provide a copy of the statement to anyone who makes a written request for it within 30 days of receiving the request.
Although the Act does not set out explicitly a penalty or prosecution for failure to comply with section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, it is entirely feasible that the Secretary of State could compel, through an injunction, a company to disclose the statement.
In recent developments, helpfully, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre in partnership with a number of other NGOs (including Anti-Slavery International, FLEX, KnowTheChain and others) have established the Modern Slavery Registry – a database of all statements. This is a free to access and open source that assists in establishing transparency in the commonly forgotten about, and all too often misconceived as outdated, practice of slavery and human trafficking. Previously, strong calls were made for Government to establish a registry in order for the public, parliamentarians, civil society and other key stakeholders review and evaluate the statements and hold companies to account for compliance with the statutory framework and commitment to ending modern slavery. Although the Government recognised the value in having such a registry, it remained steadfast in its commitment to not establishing the registry itself. The statement registry serves a valuable resource and is commendable initiative by the NGO community. The statement registry is available here.
The UK has set a good example in establishing the Modern Slavery Act and other countries are following suit. Later this month, the Australian Government is holding an inquiry into whether it should adopt legislation to combat modern slavery in global supply chains. The terms of reference specifically refers to the UK Act and it is likely that any legislation adopted would be modelled on the UK framework.
Looking forward, developments and amendments to strengthen the Act’s regime are in the pipeline. A Private Members Bill (Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill (HC Bill 105)) has been put forward and seeks to extend reporting requirements to public bodies. Subsection 5 of the Bill would require the Secretary of State to publish a list of companies and organisations that are required to publish slavery and human trafficking statements. Importantly, Clause 2 of the Bill makes reporting a requirement for an organisation to be awarded a public contract in requiring economic operators to be excluded from a procurement process if it had not produce a slavery and human trafficking statement. Although the private members bill has since been abandoned, it will nonetheless be interesting to see whether the Government puts forward its own similar proposals in the future.