On 12 February 2019, the Industry and Parliament Trust (IPT) hosted a Breakfast Meeting on ‘Ethical Business: Tackling Modern Slavery’, held in the House of Commons. The event was chaired by Simon Hoare MP, PPS to Sajid Javid as Home Secretary. The guest speakers were Alison Scowen, Senior Public Affairs Manager from the Co-operative Group, Chris Blythe OBE, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Building, and Dr Laura Lammasniemi, an Assistant Professor for Gender and the Law from the University of Warwick. The roundtable was attended by members from the House of Commons and House of Lords as well as representatives from industry, civil society, and the criminal justice system.
In recent years, modern slavery, including forced and exploitative labour, has been the focus of many legislative and policy responses in both the domestic and international domains. At the same time, large companies have become increasingly aware of the need to tackle the phenomenon and to ensure transparency, particularly within their supply chains. While estimates of the number of people caught up in forced and exploitative labour vary, it is clear that these practices occur in all industries. In 2015, the UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act with the aim of tackling these exploitative practices through various means, including introducing new offences, improving victim provisions, and creating a reporting requirement for companies on transparency in supply chains. Three years on, it is clear that the key provisions have not been as effective as was hoped, and the Government has commissioned an Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act. The roundtable discussion ‘Ethical Business: Tackling Modern Slavery’ focused on the Review, on how companies can tackle, report on and respond to labour exploitation within their supply chains, and on where to go next.
Modern Slavery within Supply Chains
The key focus of the roundtable discussions was on corporate responsibility in ensuring that ethical practices are followed within their supply chains. Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires commercial organisations carrying out business in the UK, with a turnover of at least £36 million, to prepare and publish a slavery and human trafficking statement every financial year. The existing legal framework focuses on public self-reporting on transparency in supply chains with the aim of enabling consumers and investors to make informed decisions, and thereby impact company culture. Three years on, data collected by NGOs such as Modern Slavery Registry show the statements may not be the most effective way to deal with modern slavery and forced labour within supply chains. Companies have often failed to comply with the reporting requirement, and currently, there are no sanctions imposed for non-compliance. The Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act published its Second Interim Report on Transparency in Supply Chains in January 2019. The Interim Report, which was discussed at the roundtable, proposed a number of recommendations, including introducing sanctions for non-compliance with section 54 and for a failure to produce a meaningful modern slavery statement. While roundtable participants had varying perceptions on the effectiveness and desirability of sanctions, there was consensus that more needs to be done to encourage companies to investigate and to produce a statement on modern slavery and trafficking within their businesses/supply chains. There was further consensus that ethical practices are not only necessary for ethical reasons but that these are beneficial for the business and sustainability.
One of the findings of the Interim Review was that many companies fail to look beyond first-tier providers and that companies should report on the entirety of their supply chains. The participants at the roundtable largely agreed with that part of the Report and emphasised the need to ensure that large companies do not push the responsibility for investigation and compliance down the supply chain to smaller companies, as they would not have the capacity and expertise to deal with what remains a complex area of law.
Reform of the Modern Slavery Act 2015
It is clear from the roundtable discussions and from contributions from the speakers that the Modern Slavery Act 2015, despite its ambitious scope, has not been as effective as hoped, and that all the key areas of the Act need to be reviewed to strengthen the legislation going forward. The Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act is ongoing, and both legal and policy developments in the next year will depend on the findings and recommendations of the Review. The Review and its recommendations so far have been largely welcomed and participants at the roundtable were in consensus in hoping that the Review will be able to create momentum and increase awareness of exploitative practices within industry, and to encourage compliance with the Modern Slavery Act.
Words by Dr Laura Lammasniemi, an Assistant Professor for Gender and the Law from the University of Warwick on behalf of the Industry and Parliament Trust