On World Day Against Child Labour: Is the UK Modern Slavery Act working?

Aye, aged 11, a Burmese migrant girl works with her mother Ra at a Thai shrimp peeling plant. Photo by: International Labor Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

Last week, a certain brand of corned beef vanished off the shelves of Waitrose supermarkets, one of the largest grocery chains in the United Kingdom. The product’s sudden disappearance wasn’t a result of its popularity; journalists had revealed the brand’s involvement in the use of slavery at a cattle farm in Brazil. Waitrose executives hastily removed the product and launched an investigation into the claims.

The U.K. is home to much-lauded legislation to root out human trafficking, child labour and other forms of modern slavery in the supply chains of British companies, the Modern Slavery Act 2015. So why did it take an investigation from The Guardian  to uncover this case? Waitrose had been fully in compliance with the law, yet they somehow missed the existence of possibly hundreds of slaves in their supply chain.

The answer, advocates say, lies in the way the law is drafted. Although it is easy to comply with legislation, a combination of public pressure and civic awareness has meant that many firms choose to go further, using the rules to boost supply chain compliance. Still, some would like to see the baseline standards set higher, while others warn that the evolving nature of modern slavery will require more flexible legislative guidelines.

It falls on companies to “go beyond the letter of the law into the spirit of law,” said Paul Gerrard, group policy director for The Coop, another supermarket implicated in the corned beef report.

Compliance alone requires “a statement on the internet with a link to your homepage, and has to be signed by a director,” he said, at the 2017 Responsible Business Summit in London. “That’s not a huge lift or high bar, but to be compliant that’s what you do.”

The true power of the legislation, advocates and firms say, is how some companies are using the Modern Slavery Act as a springboard into better due diligence, self-regulation and adoption of more exhaustive models of corporate behavior, such as those laid out by the International Labour Organization.

“There’s a recognition that the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, even if it doesn’t provide model policies, has been a huge impetus for companies to focus on due diligence around these kinds of issues,” said Bennett Freeman, senior adviser of benchmarking and advisory group Know the Chain and former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy at the United States Department of State.

The act, modeled on an American predecessor, the California Supply Chain Transparency Act, has catalyzed companies to “not only to report on their due diligence but to report backwards, and develop the kinds of policy commitments that will help them exceed the requirements of the law,” he said.

Baseline compliance

The ILO reports that there are more than 21 million people around the world in some form of bondage, including children. Modern slavery accounts for the second largest criminal industry in the world, the ILO says.

The U.K. legislation aims to make companies accountable and proactive against modern slavery by requiring them to issue a statement saying they have investigated their supply chains for possible labour abuse.

Groups such as the media platform Open Democracy say the law is ineffective at sparking the kind of anti-slavery movement needed among large multinational companies working overseas.

“As consumers, we need a stronger incentive for companies to confront and prevent slavery in the supply chains they receive goods and services from,” Parosha Chandran, a barrister and member of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s group of experts on trafficking, wrote in an op-ed.

He called for an extension of criminal law to cover cases in which U.K. businesses “intentionally or recklessly engage in slavery or forced labour in their supply chains overseas [to] plug the gap.” Child sexual exploitation involving British people overseas are prosecuted in the U.K., therefore “corporate acts of slavery and forced labour abroad need to be treated with the same seriousness.”

Chandran and other critics acknowledge that the legislative docket on modern slavery is still young, only dating back to 2009.

Race to the top

Yet perhaps the more powerful impact of the legislation has been its less-direct effect in empowering consumers to hold companies to account through reporting.

Head of Oxfam U.K., Mark Goldring said some companies are going “above and beyond” the Modern Slavery Act, bringing a sense of competition and quick remediation to instances of forced labor.

Speaking to Devex on the sidelines of the summit, Goldring explained that mounting pressure from consumers and civil society have resulted in more sophisticated measures to counter forced labour in supply chains.

Oxfam is currently helping a number of British businesses improve their assessment protocols “to help them look … down their labour force,” adding that “they’ve been quite surprised by what they’ve found.”

“They’ve asked us for help because they want to get it right, not because we’re there as the crusader,” he told Devex.

It’s these companies — that come forward with concerns about forced labor in their supply chains — that will set the bar for the private sector community, he said. Goldring applauded Waitrose for its speedy reaction to the corned beef scandal.

“To me the companies that need credit are the ones that know they haven’t got it right. Waitrose took the beef off their shelves,” he said. “Now to me that’s a cause for complement, not criticism, because they’ve had it brought to their attention.”

Businesses need to understand and acknowledge that “you can never get the whole thing right — and therefore you must take action immediately and publicize it,” he said.

Sarah Carpenter, a business and human rights analyst for consulting firm Assent Compliance, said acknowledging issues in the supply chain is “a crucial step,” because “it then informs and helps companies to prioritize follow-up risk mitigation and prevention action,” she said.

An evolving crisis

Even those praising the legislation, however, acknowledge the need to stay up-to-date with the nature of modern slavery and the way companies are evolving when it comes to compliance, mitigation and prevention.

“While policy commitments have to be steadfast, they have to take into account how issues evolve, practices emerge,” Freeman said. “These issues aren’t static, they’re dynamic, and there has to be some kind of evolution in policy to reflect that.”

Goldring argues that legislators must be vigilant about all forms of bondage, especially those routinely viewed as cases of exploitation, not slavery.

“We work as Oxfam in many countries which are massively dependent on remittances. If we look at South Asia, those remittances are the lifeblood of the economy, especially from the Mideast,” he said.

Goldring said fees and deductions are an inevitable part of remittances — and aren’t necessarily immoral, he said — but he said the unregulated inflation of interest rates and fees on both recipients and senders is more than just exploitative.

These fees, Goldring said, which can be difficult to detect in the typical supply chain and also affect migrant labor entering the U.K., quickly escalate into a form of bondage, for example when passports are kept by the employer or trafficker.

The Coop’s Gerrard said businesses also have yet to fully embrace their role in preventing people from sliding back into slavery once a company roots out labour abuses. For example, the Coop runs the Bright Future program, the first initiative of its kind in the supermarket industry, which guarantees paid work to 30 survivors of forced labor per year.

“Businesses can look at themselves and feel very proud that they’ve done due diligence checks,” Gerrard said. “But those people will go back into slavery unless businesses play their part in going beyond the spirit of the law and begin to give people the opportunity to get back into a normal lives in society.”

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.