Slavery & supply chains
The provision for better transparency for business supply chains was not in the original draft, having received resistance from government; but was campaigned for and has now been added to the Act released this month. But do the provisions go far enough
to stop slavery in our businesses supply chains?
According to the Modern Slavery and Supply Chains Consultation which accompanies the Act, businesses with a turnover of £36 million or more are required to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement “which discloses which steps they have taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains”.
The size of businesses under scrutiny
It is worth recognising that human trafficking can also occur either directly or within the supply chains of smaller businesses under £36 million and those that are not involved in the supply chains of larger businesses that would come under scrutiny within the new Act. Examples of this include the conviction of a former director of the Chesterfield Poultry chicken processing factory at Clay Cross and takeaways and car washes in the West Midlands in 2011. This was also raised by the Bishop of Derby, who was instrumental in getting this clause added to the new Act as member of the Joint Select Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill, saying in a debate in November 2014:
“The Government are committed to finding a level at which companies will be required to do some kind of reporting, but the way our economy is developing, with the devolution of much activity into very small-scale, local subcontracting enterprises, that is where much slavery happens, and it is well out of the purview of major operators, which have a vast scale of operation.”
It is possible then that it is significantly more organised wide scale trafficking that the Act is aiming to target and this is why the threshold of £36 million has been chosen.
Compliance, competition and reputation
The consultation also states that “it is possible for a business to comply with the provision in the Act by simply stating that they have taken no steps during the financial year to ensure that their business and supply chains are modern slavery free.” There is an argument for the over reliance in the consultation on public pressure to ensure businesses take appropriate responsibility and accountability for their supply chains which in reality, may not make enough difference.
The government response to the consultation confirms that “this requirement will make it absolutely transparent what action a business is or is not taking and will allow investors, consumers and the general public to decide who they should and should not do business with”. Amnesty International also claims that “the issue of slavery is on the radar of many corporations, not merely for ethical reasons but as a potential reputational risk.” However, is potential reputational damage really enough to ‘encourage’ businesses to comply? Will businesses provide accurate information about their supply chains when there is no formal procedure underpinning this part of the Act or any legal sanction included for those that do not comply? Amnesty International argues that “those laggard companies most inclined to ignore the presence of slave labour in their supply chains are also the least likely to publish statements drawing attention to their failure.”
Transparency of information provided
It is quite possible therefore, that some businesses will provide the minimum amount of information required. If the majority of businesses choose to do this, it will create little impetus for change. Particularly when there is no central place these statements can be found online – this is not ‘transparent’ as the consultation suggests. Rather, without real clarity, there is no way for the public to know what action is or is not being taken and therefore no grounds for pressure or competition to drive a change in anti-slavery procedures within these corporations.
However, this is still a welcome addition to the Act, particularly as many businesses do take corporate and social responsibility very seriously. The Bishop of Derby said “It is good that the Government have listened and have a genuine commitment to trying to tackle supply chains.”
Safe and Sound’s training arm JustWhistle is running a series of one-day courses on Human Trafficking in Birmingham, Liverpool, Derby and London. The course is particularly useful for professionals working with vulnerable young people and will include more information about the new legislation and the NRM.