Our last Head 2 Head dealt with the new French law allowing employees to disconnect from the workplace. The vast majority of you were in favour of a similar right applying in the UK. When it came to whether this should cover senior as well as junior employees, you were more evenly split. There was also a recognition that such a right would affect firms operating internationally. To see the results, click here. This month’s Head 2 Head focuses on the more troubling question of people who never have the right to disconnect and indeed have few rights at all, namely those caught up in the horror of modern slavery. Is our Government doing enough? Chris Syder, the CBI’s representative for the International Labour Organisation argues that the Modern Slavery Act is sufficient to address the problem. Sophie Whitbread, senior associate, claims that there is much further to go.
Yes they are. The Act is still new, it is ambitious, and if you are respectful of human rights, then it deserves your full support, not cynicism. It coherently plays its part in addressing the multi-faceted crimes of modern slavery both in the UK and internationally.
The Act is a game-changer. Not only has it led to UK law enforcement agencies having more effective tools to prosecute the perpetrators and improved protections for victims; the Act’s groundbreaking transparency in supply chains clause has been a catalyst for transformative change in company attitudes. By requiring applicable businesses operating in the UK to publish board director-signed statements every year, the Act’s reporting requirements have resulted in more transparency amongst companies. By obliging senior decision makers to consider the legal requirements and associated risks, so much more is now being done to address the scourge of modern slavery within businesses and along their supply chains.
The Act promotes company innovation. Due to the Act’s annual statement requirement, we now have the benefit of a reporting baseline of thousands of statements to measure improvements yet to come. It is all too easy to criticise their depth and breadth but these first statements are the start, not the end of the story. Not only have statements been published on company websites but they have also been collated by a number of organisations to help comparative analysis, leading to calls for more to be done. This is a positive and can only be considered a negative if further change does not flow in the coming years. The scope for transformative change and innovation within companies is therefore enormous, especially when you consider that more and more public sector procurement exercises require annual modern slavery reporting in order to be eligible to bid for new public sector contracts. Smart companies will surely use how they deal with modern slavery as a point of competitive procurement advantage, which others will have to follow to keep up.
The Act is also an international flag-bearer for human rights protection. It should not be assessed in isolation because modern slavery is not a problem only in the UK. The momentum created since the Act took effect has undoubtedly led to other national governments enacting, or considering enacting, similar legislation. France has introduced new corporate vigilance laws. In Australia, a parliamentary inquiry is considering adopting its own version of the Act. Holland has introduced new child labour laws. Angela Merkel has made it a G20 priority to promote human rights due diligence in corporate operations and supply chains. Many in civil society now advocate a trans-Atlantic modern slavery agreement or standard to create a new level reporting playing field.
The Act has teeth. It has led to criminal prosecutions in the UK. For example, two brothers who trafficked 18 people from Poland to the UK have been jailed for six years for recruiting vulnerable men to work at the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.
Consequently, a conclusion that the requirements of the Act are not sufficient to deal with the problems it seeks to address would dismiss all of the above. It would blatantly ignore the sheer scale of modern slavery crimes both nationally and internationally. I urge you to recognise the importance of the Act and the progress made to date. Do the right thing; do not write the Act off. There is a compelling ethical and business case to engage and comply.
The term ‘modern slavery’ was unfamiliar to most people five years ago. It is undeniable that the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) of 2015 and the research that led to its introduction have massively raised the profile of slavery and human trafficking in the UK over that time. As the Bill moved towards becoming law, the media highlighted sobering statistics taken from reports from the National Crime Agency and the Human Trafficking Foundation charity, as well as from research by Labour MP Frank Field. The MSA has certainly played a huge role in raising public awareness of slavery that is going on - right here, right now - in the UK. We now look more knowingly at workers labouring in fields, or washing our car, and waiting staff at our favourite restaurant.
But is this enough to deal with the possible 10,000 or even 20,000 slaves that are estimated to be in the UK at any one time, depending on which report you read, to say nothing of those in modern slavery across the world?
One of the key requirements of the MSA is the duty on companies and partnerships to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement, which must include details of the steps that an organisation has taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains. This is no doubt a worthy enterprise, but one, I would suggest, that is without teeth. To begin with, the obligation applies only to businesses with a minimum turnover of £36 million. This will exclude many of the very businesses which could be engaged in such activity. Secondly, it is perfectly acceptable for the document to include a statement that the organisation has taken no such steps. An impact assessment on the Modern Slavery Bill, produced a few months before the Bill became law, states that 'modern slavery is often motivated by profit and so it is absolutely essential that our law enforcement response does everything possible to demonstrate that this crime does not pay’. How does that sit with an obligation to produce a statement that has no sanctions at all to back it up? The Government is relying entirely on the goodwill of businesses and their desire to preserve their reputations. The absence of any real sanction concerning the statement will inevitably reduce an organisation’s motivation to ensure its supply chains are ethical.
Whilst there is now an obligation on the police, local authorities and a limited number of other organisations to report incidents of modern slavery, other organisations are simply ‘encouraged’ to do so. If a big business becomes aware of slavery or human trafficking in its supply chain, where then is the incentive for it to report that? The best that is likely to be achieved is that the business turns its back on that supplier, hoping that it will never come to light that it had previously had any involvement with it. Who better to report these issues than those who have actually been involved, albeit unwittingly, in them?
It is not denied that the MSA has raised awareness throughout the UK of the concept of modern slavery. Steps have certainly been taken in the right direction, and the Government has put its money where its mouth is, recently promising an investment by the UK of £6 million in projects to tackle modern slavery around the world. However, the MSA is really just scraping the surface of this issue. To get closer to achieving the aims of the MSA, there needs to be a greater incentive for businesses, large and small, to up their game when it comes to ethical business.