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Through the Looking Glass (Eye) - Anti Slavery Day 2021

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Through the Looking Glass (Eye) - Anti Slavery Day 2021

  • Publish Date: Posted 7 months ago
  • Author: Mark Taylor

Why are we talking about slavery in 2021?



The first laws passed in the UK to abolish the slave trade date back to 1833.  The global treaty banning slavery came into force in 1927.

We are fast approaching 100 years of human history in which the trade in people has been as illegal as it could possibly be. And yet in the UK, very conservative estimates suggest at least 100,000 people are currently living in situations of modern slavery.

Globally, the figure could be as high as 40.3 million people. You might ask – if it’s so illegal, how can the numbers be so high? 

Modern slavery is a term that covers slavery as many would understand it – the buying and selling of people – but also more insidious crimes like forced labour or human trafficking. 

Why does it happen?

It’s a lucrative endeavour controlled by organised crime, worth up to £100 billion in illegal profits a year according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Like many of the issues in our hyper-connected consumerist society, it can hide in plain sight. 

This was brought home with the disturbing stories emerging from garment factories in Leicester. Not only was slavery happening – it was happening here, in one of the most advanced democracies in the world. 

The now all too familiar, shocking allegations of forced labour at Boohoo factories in Leicester are once again grabbing headlines.

Boohoo was recently hit with a double whammy as US lawmakers are mulling a potential import ban against the company, and UK MPs are asking for a long-term bonus scheme to be linked to supply chain improvements.

It’s abundantly clear that despite repeated scandals and inquiries — and share prices fluctuating in line with each new development — the problems of Boohoo and other companies tackling abuses in supply chains, whether in the UK, China or anywhere else, remain far from solved.

Consumers simply don’t want human rights abuses or environmental destruction tainting the products or services they buy. But it is not the consumer’s responsibility to ensure that the products they buy have been produced responsibly … we assume everything is legal as a minimum!

It has been 10 years since the adoption of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) which, to this day, the UK government has as its blueprint for ensuring human rights in global business operations. 

The UNGP’s took a phrase familiar to the business world, “due diligence”, and adopted it for human rights. To fulfil the “corporate responsibility to respect” human rights, companies should undertake “human rights and environmental due diligence” across their supply chains, with legal liability potentially accruing when they fail to root out abuses.

In the decade since there has been a global trend of embedding the UNGP’s in domestic law.

The Modern Slavery Act pioneered a trend, but it’s since been superseded by France’s Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law, new laws under development in Switzerland and Germany, and a potentially transformative new EU initiative which is expected to apply to all UK businesses operating in the Single Market. 

While these foreign laws offer real potential for tackling the complex problems of corporate supply chain abuses, as the shadow foreign secretary recently acknowledged in the context of Uyghur abuses, the Modern Slavery Act is mere “a tick box exercise”.

In the space of six years, the UK was seen as the leader … and now it “must try harder”. The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 was established nearly six years ago and hailed as a landmark piece of legislation. It was supposed to encourage businesses to remove modern slavery from their operations and supply chains by both introducing transparency requirements for companies and inspiring a "race to the top" by increasing competition to drive up collective standards.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) developed and hosted the only public repository of statements –the Modern Slavery Registry – and assessed the compliance of over 16,000 modern slavery statements from some of the largest global companies over the past five years. This analysis concludes the UK Modern Slavery Act has failed in its stated intentions and that efforts must now focus on more effective approaches.

Key findings:

  • Despite persistent non-compliance by 40% of companies, no injunctions or administrative penalties have been issued to companies failing to report.

  • Section 54’s lack of mandatory reporting areas has led to companies publishing general statements that do not engage with the risks of modern slavery specific to their sectors and regions of operation.

  • The Act has not driven significant improvement in corporate practices to eliminate modern slavery.

  • The narrow focus of the law treats modern slavery as distinct from other forms of labour abuse and disclosure requirements exclude the spectrum of labour abuse risks that could lead to or are a clear indication of modern slavery.

Transparency is necessary but relying on voluntary disclosure is insufficient to prevent the worst forms of labour abuse. Not even the government’s proposed amendments to the Act will drive out the modern-day version of slavery.

There is an urgent need for legally binding obligations on companies - properly and forcefully implemented - that go beyond hollow reporting requirements. Not a single company has faced repercussions for non-compliance.

Key Recommendations by the BHRRC

  • New UK legislation: a failure to prevent a law that imposes legal liability on all companies in all sectors which fail to prevent human and labour rights harms from occurring in their business operations. Companies would have to show reasonable and appropriate human rights due diligence practices as a defence to legal liability.

  • Import bans: the government should also consider laws that allow for import bans on products linked to severe human and labour rights violations including forced and child labour, to complement the failure to prevent law.

  • Public procurement: the above legal frameworks must cover public sector procurement given the government’s staggering spending power. This would provide government leverage during public contract tendering processes and incentivise companies to improve their human rights due diligence.

As the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner herself, Dame Sara Thornton, acknowledges: “As the current law stands, companies do not have to report abuses in their supply chains, however egregious, nor are they liable for them.”

There is already cross-party political traction for this. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended in 2017 that “the government bring forward legislation to impose a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuses”. 

Then just last year, the esteemed  British Institute of International and Comparative Law demonstrated that not only is the proposal legally feasible, but most businesses support new legislation due to the legal certainty and level playing field it could bring. 

Multinational corporations based in the UK, operating via subsidiaries all over the globe, continue to be linked to human rights and environmental abuses and to act with impunity. 

Is the tide about to turn? We’ve talked about this at length before but, last month, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Okabi v Shell, which affirmed the precedent that companies domiciled in the UK have a duty of care and will be held to account at home for human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by the subsidiaries they control overseas. So because we have Modern Slavery laws in the UK, they can be applied globally to UK based businesses!

Make it stop!

It’s impossible to recruit enough police globally to end the trade or scrape the surface of it. We can’t leave it to the extraordinary efforts of charities and NGOs to clean up the mess. So where do we go? 

The pandemic has exposed our extreme reliance on “just in time” supply chains – from Ibuprofen shortages to scandals around PPE. We have become accustomed to having everything we want. Behind that rests a vast corporate retail infrastructure, with intricate supply chains many layers thick.

It’s that complexity that enables the criminal element to thrive. 

So, what if you turned your biggest problem … complex global supply chains … into your greatest asset in the fight against slavery?

What if every business in the UK had an incentive to examine its supply chain, root out modern slavery and prevent it from happening? 

It was a vision shared by policymakers in passing the landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act that brought UK businesses onto the front line in the fight against slavery.

By ensuring mandatory reporting on modern slavery in their business, UK companies have the chance to address this key supply chain risk in a manageable manner. Crucially, investors get the level of transparency required to make better-informed decisions about which companies were aware of and managing the risk best. 

If the biggest and best-resourced companies in the UK, some of the household brand names, couldn’t get moving in five years of the law, then what hope do we have for the remaining 12-13,000 smaller companies also covered?



Moving forward

As we recover from Covid-19, the government must act not just to ensure that supply chains are resilient but also that they are governed by frameworks protecting human rights and our environment, so that resilient business is a responsible business. 

As the Supreme Court ruling and the reality of an imminent, new EU supply chain initiative lead to even more uncertainty and unevenness in the obligations facing business, new UK legislation becomes increasingly urgent.

It’s more evident than ever that this will also meet a market need: consumers don’t want goods tainted by abuse, and it’s on government and business to ensure this simple, concern for our fellow human beings is met! We have gluten-free and organic … we must have slavey-free too.

UK companies must be compelled to root out and answer for abuses in their supply chains. To do this needs new laws — and bringing them in will restore the UK’s leadership role at precisely the moment it looks to embark on a Global Britain agenda.

We all have a combined responsibility to address the pain and suffering caused by Modern Slavery; whether it’s by organised crime syndicates or opportunistic bullies … it’s intolerable.