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Modern slavery: what’s your responsibility? - Article 1 of 6

09 July 2018

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 aims to tackle slavery in the UK, but businesses have a crucial role to play in preventing labour exploitation and people trafficking.

The term ‘slavery’ conjures up images of mind-boggling cruelty and coercion, slave barons, treacherous transatlantic voyages and human rights violations of the worst kind.

But while the Slavery Abolition Act made the practice illegal in most of the British Empire from 1833, modern-day slavery permeates the breadth of UK industry, as well as the global supply chain.

Hiding in plain sight, the practice remains a very real problem on our own doorstop in the UK, its many forms ranging from sex workers to servile marriages; factory staff to farm hands; and car wash attendants to caterers.

Men, women and children are trafficked across borders by unscrupulous criminal gangs, paid very little and forced to put up with squalid and often dangerous living conditions when they arrive in Britain.

The Human Trafficking Foundation charity says there are 20,000 slaves living in the UK today, but believes the true figure to be many more.

Prime Minister Theresa May has called it “the great human rights issue of our time”.

An end to modern slavery?

In 2015, the UK government introduced new legislation to address business responsibility for human rights. While opinion remains divided as to whether it was truly ‘pioneering’, the new legislation marked a global first in tackling modern slavery specifically.

Under Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act, all commercial organisations operating in the UK with annual global turnover of £36m or more are now required to produce a yearly statement on the steps that they have taken to identify and address slavery and human trafficking in their own business, as well as their supply chains.

Because the legislation stipulates global turnover, subsidiaries of global corporates operating in the UK could also be subject to the law even if their UK turnover is below the threshold.

“Modern slavery clearly exists in any supply chain and in any industry,” says Helena Sans, Industry Director, Retail and Wholesale, Barclays.

“Whether that’s retail and wholesale, professional and business services, hospitality and leisure, or the manufacturing sector – all have very different issues to examine.

"Organisations need to act now. The reputations of big high street retailers have been rocked by a series of high-profile scandals in the last few years from practices discovered in overseas supply chains, as well as in UK operations.

“We may still be a long way from fully understanding modern-day slavery, but ignorance of the issue is not a get-out for businesses.”

One way the issue is tackled at Barclays is the mining of the bank’s data to weed out suspected people traffickers and those linked with sexual exploitation.

Through this dedicated work, Barclays has now terminated the accounts of 200 customers believed to be linked to such activities, handing their details over to the police.

The bank was also recently shortlisted for the Thomson Reuters ‘Stop Slavery Award 2017’ for its efforts to eradicate forced labour from its supply chains.

And just last year, Barclays teamed up with charity Stop the Traffik to run a campaign in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire to raise awareness of human trafficking, especially in the local agricultural sector.

“We put up posters in local branches and our Facebook post reached 250,000 users in the area,” says Paul Horlick, Head of Barclays’ Financial Intelligence Unit.

“Our aim was to educate customers to recognise the signs and report their suspicions. The campaign very much got this message across.”

The challenges ahead

Human trafficking is now the world’s fastest growing crime. According to figures from the ILO there were an estimated 40.3 million people living in modern slavery in 2016, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriages.

“We still don’t know the true reach of trafficking globally,” says Ruth Dearnley OBE, Chief Executive of Stop the Traffik.

“We’re beginning to get glimpses through arrests, fines and prosecutions. But we can’t yet get a clear view of the extensive organised crime networks behind it. This is our greatest challenge – you can’t stop what you can’t see.

“In London, this could be the boy in the back of the sandwich shop, who you may catch a glimpse of washing up in the sink. Always kept at the back, bound and chained.

"Captive with only a mattress to sleep on. Later, he may be sent out on the street corner to beg. The ways of exploitation are multiple.”

No single business, charity or government can put an end to the misery of human trafficking and slavery.

Collaboration is very much needed to tackle the issue. Practical discussions between key stakeholders from business, charity, government and the legal sector can help organisations to not only meet their own legislative requirements, but work towards collectively eradicating modern-day slavery in all its guises.

“We need to shine a light on affected communities, so multiple players can make a difference together,” says Dearnley. “Businesses know things; they have spider networks criss-crossing the globe, encountering information and stories along the way.

"By taking different decisions, businesses can wield great power and influence. But this doesn’t just mean walking away from a situation; it means empowering vulnerable local communities to stop the traffickers.

“Businesses also need to share their information and data. This may take a revolution, but we need to establish trust and transparency.

"It will open up a truth that people can trust. This can be done. Business can be the fastest force for change in the world, and I say that as the head of an NGO.”

Beyond the ‘tick-box’

Dearnley says the modern slavery statement, which larger UK businesses are now required to compile every year, is a step in the right direction, but the charity boss fears some businesses are still approaching it as a mere ‘tick-box’ exercise.

“We need to see action from board level right down to supply chains,” she believes.

“And we need to share everything we know, because we now have the technology capable of analysing all this data. It will allow us to build an evidence-led model that will shine a light on this crime.

“We are at a moment of opportunity and can change the world. But just doing well isn’t going to be enough; we need to do good.”

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