Where does the UK's response to modern slavery rank? By Helen Carter

At the launch of the 2023 Global Slavery Index Report, there a few main discussion points including; the figures, the methodology for capturing them, the stronger insight into supply chains, and the role of the G20 in contributing and tackling the issue of forced labour.

The report was comprehensive in nature, and although it is a hefty tome it provides a huge wealth of intelligence and perspectives that are useful for any individual or organisation to look through.  You can find a link to the report here via Walk Free.

One of the elements of the report that raised an eyebrow with many people in the room was the recognition that the UK topped countries in most activity relating to modern slavery.  This is an interesting announcement and one that felt like it needed further investigation.  What exactly is the UK doing and are we really worthy of the top spot?

To understand how countries are assessed you need to look at the criteria for evaluation.  The index evaluates government response against five criteria:

  • Survivors of slavery are identified and supported to exit and remain out of modern slavery.
  • Criminal justice mechanisms function effectively.
  • Co-ordination occurs at the national and regional level and across borders, and governments are held to account for their response.
  • Risk factors, such as attitudes, social systems, and institutions that enable modern slavery are addressed.
  • Government and business stop sourcing goods and services produced by forced labour.

So, what is the UK doing that enable us to score so highly and what needs to be done to go further?

The Modern Slavery Act 2015

There cannot be many people who do not know that the UK has a modern slavery act.  However, how many people understand it and how it applies to them is a different question. Individuals and businesses are still unaware of the intricacies of the act or understand what the disclosure requirements are really trying to get businesses to think about.

The act was lauded as leading in its nature and theoretically it is still a good example in terms of supply chain engagement, remediation for survivors and survivor support, the establishment of a mechanism for oversight and the system to support victims through the journey they are going through. The practical application of the legislation, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

We have seen a few significant prosecutions through the act, some of which have created waves in business, however, most have been less than successful or impactful.

With a movement to confuse modern slavery with immigration and treat survivors as economic immigrants, the failure to appoint a new Anti-Slavery Commissioner, the lack of investment in support systems for survivors of modern slavery, the proposed changes to the modern slavery act agreed in 2020 and yet still failing to be translated into current legislation. The feeling is that the UK’s actual approach to modern slavery and all the crimes included under that term has eroded the leading status of the UK legislation.

Supply Chains

The UK act asks for businesses to disclose their activity to address modern slavery but there is lack of compliance or appetite to ensure businesses are held to account. Businesses are still failing to associate disclosure with due diligence activity and for that reason they are usually vague and as such could be considered as ineffective in the fight against forced labour and exploitation.

The Global Slavery Index Report announced that the G20 imported $468 million dollars’ worth of goods that are at high risk of forced labour practices.

Whilst the UK was not top of this list (it was the US) we were 4th behind Japan and Germany.  The UK is reported to import $26billion (£21billion) worth of goods every year and the main products include:

  • Electronics
  • Garments
  • Fish
  • Textiles
  • Timber

The main regions imports come from included China, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Russia, and Brazil amongst others.

As part of this study survivors with lived experience were interviewed and they were asked from all the government response criteria which were the most important to them and the results were telling. Survivors in the UK ranked the legislation to support survivor identification as the most important and the role of procurement and sourcing goods the least important. Survivors in India ranked the sourcing of goods using forced labour as the most important criteria and the legislation near the bottom. This illustrates that where we see the supply chains affected the most by forced labour conditions survivors are looking to businesses and buying power to be the catalyst for change rather than their government.

Government Procurement Response

Whilst the proposed changes in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 have yet to be converted to actual legislation, the Government has made strides to address the issue through purchasing policy. As series of policy notes were issues over the last couple of years:

Both provide government buying organisations with the policy direction to consider modern slavery in extended supply chains when procuring at risk products.  The challenge with PPN06/20 is that the aspects of social value you allocate 10% of your weighting to is arbitrary and up to the contracting authority. Modern slavery which is a difficult area to address can find itself behind local business and jobs which are easier to achieve and are more popular in nature.

To help sure up the gap slightly PPN02/23 was published in April this year, and this was a refresh of a past policy note that brought modern slavery back into the psyche of government buying organisations.  It is early days but as the government has links to most of those G20 imports it does provide the procurement teams with some guidance and support when considering how to assess the risk and implement procurement strategies.

But it is in supply chain due diligence the UK is falling behind. In 2021, the US introduced it’s Forced Labour Uyghur Act which bans products entering the country which are linked to the Uyghur region in China where we are seeing the persecution of Uyghurs and the introduction of Uyghurs forced to work in key supply chains. Namely; solar, cotton, aluminium, and tomatoes amongst others.

The EU has tabled it’s EU Due Diligence legislation and is currently agreeing on the mechanisms in the legislation that will stop goods linked to forced labour entering the EU. That law is tabled to be enacted in 2024.

Currently there are no due diligence legislative mechanisms in place in the UK beyond disclosure. This leaves the UK in vulnerable position and potentially losing its status as leading on this agenda.

With increasing global due diligence legislation, are policy notes and procurement questions sets going to be enough? Or are we going to get closer to the top of the import products list as well when the next report is released in 2028/9?

Interested in how we can help your organisation with your modern slavery strategy? Get in touch with our expert Helen Carter here.

For more information

Helen Carter
Lead Consultant
Helen@actionsustainability.com

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