With even John Lewis caught out by a sharp rise in forced labour in UK supply chains, there are fears firms will move more purchasing overseas to protect their brands

Labour exploitation has overtaken sexual exploitation as the most common category recorded for potential victims of modern slavery in the UK. According to the National Crime Agency, 3,266 potential slavery victims were identified in 2015, a whopping 40% increase on 2014 figures. Of those, 36% (1,183 people, both adults and minors) were identified by police and other authorities as having thought to have been entrapped some form of labour exploitation.

Such figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Research carried out by the Home Office in 2013 estimated the number of potential slavery victims in the UK was between 10,000-13,000. In his first annual report released last month the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland noted that while the UK Modern Slavery Act had helped to push the topic into the boardrooms of big business, it was just the first step. “The role that the private sector can play in tackling modern slavery, within the UK and across the globe, cannot be underestimated,” he said.

As companies pay more attention to the UK Act, reports suggest that some are finding incidences of modern slavery happening closer to home in their supply chains than first thought. Earlier this year, the owner of Kozee Sleep, a West Yorkshire bed-making business that supplied retailers like John Lewis and Next, was found guilty and sentenced to 27 months in jail for employing trafficked Hungarian workers as slave labour in his factories.

This summer, the first High Court hearing against a British company on modern slavery – Kent-based DJ Houghton Catching Services – ruled in favour of group of trafficked Lithuanian migrants, who sued the company for severe exploitation including unpaid wages, distress and personal injury. The company provided labour to poultry farms across the UK, including those supplying chickens and free-range eggs for major brands found on supermarket shelves.

Some UK poultry farms used trafficked migrants
Image Credit: Alf Ribiero

Phil Bloomer, executive director at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, says what’s reported is likely only just scratching the surface. “We have seen a rising number of cases of modern slavery, and that’s the ones that have become public, either because companies are wanting to become transparent or because of legal cases. There is probably a number of other cases that have been found in UK supply chains that have simply not been revealed.”

He adds for companies operating global supply chains, the reputational risks attached to finding modern slavery on your doorstep are intense. “It definitely poses an extra layer of risk. Media interest in what’s happening locally is 10 times that of what’s happening in Thailand or Bangladesh. Therefore the risks of exposure are substantially higher.”

Bloomer adds: “There is even some talk of stopping sourcing in the UK because of heightened brand risk. This would be tragic: brands can support decent work in the UK, rather than flee to avoid scrutiny.”

Cindy Berman, head of knowledge and learning at the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs that address problems on an industry-wide basis, including the exploitation of Syrian refugees working in Turkey, agrees that companies see greater risk now in their UK supply chains. “We have heard from some companies that they have found the UK a really risky area. We do know that because it’s closer to home, the reputation exposure is much greater.”

As companies gain greater visibility of their supply chain, Berman says they are discovering potential risks in areas they previously hadn’t considered. One example is in service procurement such as cleaning, catering and logistics. The UK hospitality industry is starting to address the issue. Shiva Foundation, the charity arm of Shiva Hotels, is developing an Anti-trafficking Charter which will outline steps hotels can take to minimise potential slavery risks in both their operational and purchasing supply chains. The charter is being piloted at the DoubleTree by Hilton in London, one of the properties managed by Shiva Hotels.

The UK hospitality industry is starting to address slavery
Image Credit: Michael Jung

Rishi Sachdev, co-founder of Shiva Foundation and director of Shiva Hotels, hopes the charter will eventually be seen as an industry standard. He says it won’t just apply to procurement departments. “If you ask hotel managers how would you identify if someone coming into the hotel was a trafficker, they wouldn’t know what to look out for. There’s definitely something that can be done to educate and improve what we are doing as an industry.”

Berman emphasises that ending relationships with suppliers should be a last resort. “We would never advocate it as a first step… We do understand that companies need to manage risk and that their board managers are extremely jittery about slavery being found in their supply chain, and that they would rather pull out. As far as we are concerned, one company making a decision to end their relationship with one supplier is not the answer … that risk is simply passed somewhere else.”

modern slavery  Human rights  supply chain  transparency  anti-trafficking  The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre 

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