Current modern slavery laws fail to do enough to interrogate supply chain details, writes Francis Ho

francis ho bw 2017

The prime minister has described modern slavery as a “barbaric evil” and “the great human rights issue of our time”. As home secretary she sponsored the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which confirmed that human trafficking, knowingly holding a person in slavery or servitude or compelling him or her to perform forced labour all comprise offences. Victim consent may not prevent a crime being committed. 

Theresa May’s former department has launched an independent review of the legislation. In parallel, evidence on its impact is being heard in the Commons by the home affairs committee, which watches over the Home Office’s work.

Recent events may explain this sudden post-legislative scrutiny. This spring, the independent anti-slavery commissioner departed. Kevin Hyland’s resignation letter complained of repeated Home Office interference. At the same time, the media has excoriated the weak extent of compliance with section 54 of the act by businesses operating in the UK. This obliges those supplying goods or services with a global turnover of more than £36m to declare actions taken to achieve supply chain conformity.

“Construction clients and tier-one contractors invariably lose visibility of their subcontractors’ workforces further down the supply chain”

As the first national legislature to deliver specific legislation on institutional slavery, missteps are understandable. Moreover, posterity may regard favourably a decision to identify and fix the issues early rather than wait.

The Chartered Institute of Building, a charity that promotes the science and practice of building for the good of society, may hold some of the answers being sought. Its estimable report titled Construction and the Modern Slavery Act reminded us that construction ranks second as the sector most vulnerable to human exploitation in the EU. Intrinsic pressures such as the high proportion of migrant workers, thin margins, transient labour, late completions, low wages, lowest cost tendering and delayed payment make for a perfect storm. Coerced working may also follow other abusive practices such as blacklisting, union busting, the confiscation of passports, bullying and inadequate health and safety.

How Brexit could shake things up in the UK is unclear at the moment. If EU citizens lose the right to work, they could swell the ranks of those prone to exploitation. And if labour shortages deepen it will open the door for organised crime to place vulnerable persons with desperate contractors. Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to correlate modern slavery with free movement: the majority of victims here are British.

Indeed, ignorance and complacency pose considerable challenges. Construction clients and tier-one contractors invariably lose visibility of their subcontractors’ workforces further down the supply chain, with particular impenetrability occurring at tier four and below. This may magnify if overseas suppliers of materials, goods or workers are involved.

Despite such realities, the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply recorded improbable confidence levels in a survey of procurement managers last year: 37% of respondents admitted to not having read any government guidance while 58% were satisfied their supply chains were safe from modern slavery.

“The Modern Slavery Act  may even reduce standards by enabling a poor compliance culture”

Such head-burying is bewildering when set against official calculations on the scale of this hidden wickedness. The National Crime Agency estimates that the number in slavery exceeds 13,000 in the UK; the Global Slavery Index and the International Labour Organization each put the worldwide figure at more than 40 million.

The Modern Slavery Act may even reduce standards by enabling a poor compliance culture. Section 54 requires qualifying firms to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement, setting out any preventative steps taken by it or its supply chain. Nonetheless, the statement can just state that no steps have been followed. There are no recriminations – save perhaps for reputational damage – if nothing is prepared. Small wonder that many are in contravention.

The good news, however, is that industry bodies are providing invaluable guidance and toolkits. Stronger Together has helped food retailers battle modern slavery and expanded to offering best practice to the construction industry. Equally, increased investigative powers have benefited the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which has come together with major construction companies on a protocol designed to raise awareness in supply chains and exchange information. One Oxford theatre company has even developed a show that uses parkour to tell construction workers a story of modern slavery. This will tour working sites next year.

Slowly, then, things are improving – but far more must be done by our politicians, not least for the victims of crime and to ensure that all businesses play a fairer part. All eyes now turn to Westminster and its inquisitions.

Francis Ho is a partner in Penningtons Manches