Phil Bloomer of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Nick Grono of the Freedom Fund say this week's independent review confirms the deep concerns of activists about the government's light-touch approach

Recent weeks have seen multiple stories in the UK media on how modern slavery is endemic in the supply chains of goods as diverse as cars, condoms, phones, food and clothes. It is a reminder, if any is needed, of the timeliness of the report released this week by the independent review into the UK’s Modern Slavery Act.

The review is being carried out by three MPs who are knowledgeable about slavery. This is their second interim report, and casts a keen eye over the efforts of the UK government’s light-touch approach to corporate transparency on slavery and forced labour in their supply chains. Its findings confirm the deep concerns of activists about the limitations of the transparency provisions of the Act.

Almost three quarters of FTSE100 are failing to properly disclose modern slavery in their supply chains

This is no surprise, as such problems have been previously identified by the UK Modern Slavery Registry of corporate compliance statements – a registry that was itself set up by an alliance of civil society organisations because the government was not willing to monitor the impact of its own legislation.  A recent BHRRC report, drawing on registry data, found that 73 out of the FTSE 100 companies (the UK’s largest) are failing to properly disclose what they are doing to counter modern slavery in their supply chains.

The Modern Slavery Registry has long recommended this failure of disclosure should be rectified by a government that aspires to international leadership on modern slavery. It is also consistent with the government’s commitment to the British public to take action to stop this egregious abuse from occurring on its own shores.

Modern slavery is frequently found in nail bars in the UK. Credit: Youtube

We applaud the review committee’s recommendations, which include sanctions for non-compliant companies; a central state-run registry for companies’ modern slavery statements; extending the law to cover the public sector; and removing the provision that says companies can be deemed compliant just by reporting that they have taken no action on modern slavery.  

We urge the UK government to adopt these recommendations in full. But we also call on it to ensure there are the resources in place to properly implement and monitor these reforms to ensure effective compliance.

Right now, we have a situation where UK employers can expect a minimum wage inspection on average once every 500 years. Given such minimal scrutiny of labour conditions at home, it should come as no surprise that modern slavery is not only endemic in many global supply chains, but is also to be found in many UK supply chains too - from fast fashion factories in Leicester to furniture in the north of England, and cleaners, nail bars, and car-washes across Britain.

When workers know their rights and are able to organise, they act to prevent modern slavery

That’s why part of the solution has to be the strengthening of workers’ rights in the UK. As we can see from cases such as that of Ahold tomato pickers in Florida, when workers know their rights and are able to organise, they also act to prevent modern slavery, which is entirely consistent with this government’s own declared objectives.

It’s in that spirit that we urge the government to go further than these recommendations and introduce mandatory due diligence in their supply chains, so companies are proactive in identifying risks of worker abuse, and act to prevent them. More countries are starting to enact robust due diligence measures, such as those found in France’s Duty of Vigilance Law.

Only with effective regulation, proper monitoring and enforcement, and strong workers’ rights, can the government fulfil its promises to tackle what it has called “the great human rights issue of our time”. The victims of modern slavery deserve nothing less. 

Phil Bloomer is executive director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Nick Grono is CEO of the Freedom Fund.

Main photo by photographyfirm/Shutterstock
modern slavery act  Business and Human Rights Resource Centre  The Freedom Fund 

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