In July 2019, a human trafficking ring was uncovered as part of the largest UK modern slavery investigation. The gang exploited over 400 people, including homeless, ex-convicts and individuals with substance problems, paying them as little as 50 pence an hour for their labour.
The case highlights the problems that both buyers and suppliers face when trying to make sure they are not inadvertently profiting from forced labour. Criminals looking to profit from modern slavery in the UK are often very well organised, making it hard to detect the practice in today’s complex and often global supply chains. Furthermore, lockdown measures introduced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic are feared to have driven modern slavery further underground, with those already trapped suddenly less visible, with less opportunity to escape and fewer sources of support available. The number of victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) — the UK’s framework for identifying victims of trafficking – was down 23% on the previous 3 months, representing two consecutive declining quarters.
Modern slavery statistics show that there are over 25 million people currently in forced labour around the world. In 2017, we launched the Labour Practices Audit (currently known as Ethical Business Programme) in order to help businesses have a greater visibility of their labour practices and help build legal and ethical supply chains.
It is not just about audits though. We think that the only way to eliminate forced labour from supply chains is for buyers and suppliers to work together to understand how it affects them and create strategies to tackle it.
Here are five steps we can all start taking today:
Acknowledge the problem
There is no point in sugar-coating the issue: modern slavery exists everywhere. It is the responsibility of the buyers and suppliers to prove, rather than hope, it is not within their supply chain. It is better to investigate now and deal with any issues you find, than waiting to deal reactively if they occur later down the line.
This is why our Ethical Business Programme (formally Labour Practice Audits) can be so useful – we can help both buyers and suppliers get a better overview of the people working for them. Supplier pre-qualification is another powerful tool that allows buyers to know that their suppliers are compliant.
While companies need to talk openly and honestly about modern slavery, there is a role for government in creating legal and ethical supply chains. The Brazilian government announced in 2019 that it would be creating a ‘dirty list’ of companies that have been found to engage in unfair work practices. Companies on the list are blocked from receiving state loans and private banks now use the list to gauge credit risk.
Find the needle in the haystack – examine your supply chain
Identifying any weak links and interrogating any gaps in your information is important. Visibility and transparency are key to building a better understanding of the risks within your supply chain. But, the complexity of modern supply chains often makes it difficult for both buyers and suppliers to have a clear picture of what is going on.
Supply chain mapping and risk scoring allows companies to see where their biggest risk and potential vulnerabilities lie. Having this insight means you can target your efforts in a more efficient way – instead of feeling like you are on the lookout for a needle in a haystack.
Own the solution
You need to make sure that your policies and codes of conduct are distributed and implemented throughout the supply chain – and that suppliers understand the need to embed good practice and effective policies throughout their business.
We want to provide companies with the tools they need to take charge of their supply chains and make it easy for every part of it to work constructively together. Leadership from business is the most important part of the fight against modern slavery, and there is a growing expectation among regulators and customers that companies need to actively do good instead of simply avoiding doing wrong.
We can help.
There are a number of schemes that have been set up to help victims of modern slavery in the UK. HSBC, for example, is working with charities like the Salvation Army to offer bank accounts to people affected by forced labour and human trafficking in order to help them find housing and new employment.
We think that working in partnership across the supply chain helps create a stronger response and makes working towards reform much easier. Bringing an end to UK modern slavery isn’t just about conducting an audit and filing the results away. Rather, it is an ongoing process that requires regular monitoring and communication.
Managing a supply chain is a complex undertaking, and it can be easy to prioritise some tasks over others. It is important that companies don’t let modern slavery slip to the bottom of their to-do lists, as this can make it easier for forced labour to creep in.
Businesses need to take responsibility beyond meeting their compliance obligations and issuing a modern slavery statement on their website. It is an issue that needs to be on meeting agendas and part of conversation with new and established suppliers.
Our communities help to foster the kind of positive collaboration between buyers and suppliers that allow them to work better together based on shared values and goals. This kind of partnership is going to be needed if we are going to eliminate modern slavery in the UK and the rest of the world.