Heroes of modern slavery: James Ewins

1 September 2017

Barrister James Ewins helped to draft the Modern Slavery Act. SM celebrates some of the many – and increasing – heroes of modern slavery

The barrister
James Ewins

The second slavery statement is the first tangible opportunity for businesses to show they have done something positive. “If they don’t, they will likely get some correspondence from an interested party,” says Ewins, the barrister who helped to draft the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Various NGOs are actively seeking aggressive litigation to haul up companies that are not complying, he says. If a hotel chain hits a PR nightmare that involves slavery among its low-skilled workers, investors can ask the board what they were doing. “Now, there is no board that can say they have not considered the risk – it is a legal requirement.”

Ewins learned about contemporary slavery while attending a bicentennial celebration of the Atlantic Slave Trade Act 1807, which abolished slave trade. He joined a consumer campaign to get Cadbury to produce Fairtrade chocolate – successfully, and soon after, he headed up an office for the International Justice Commission charity in India. He and Indian national lawyers, investigators and social workers rescued several hundred people out of slavery, working alongside police, government and agencies to enforce the law and prioritise resources. “Once when we said we had found some slaves that were being beaten, attacked, raped, they said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t help this week; we are measuring the gap between exam desks’,” he recalls.

In the UK, he worked with the modern slavery working group of think tank The Centre for Social Justice, publishing a report in 2013, It Happens Here, focusing on areas of society that needed to improve slavery. “We said we need a modern slavery act, and here’s what it should say,” he says. They took it to the home secretary Theresa May, who listened. “This was the start of the law, which was ultimately passed on 24 March 2015.”

Ewins became specialist legal adviser on the government joint select committee, scrutinising the draft bill on things like terms of reference, the anti-slavery commissioner, and elements of transparency. He credits the Home Office for bringing together anti-slavery elements hidden in other laws, on approving an independent anti-slavery commissioner, and on reparation and compensation for victims. “So now if Bill Bloggs, who runs a paving company, is convicted, the victim might well see their back pay out of his assets.

“It did at times feel as if we were pushing at open doors, but not in the transparency in supply chains element,” he says. That was at first rejected, and only got through after lobbying from Vince Cable in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Number 10, and business leaders who said the law would ensure a level playing field for businesses that want to do it.

Ewins hopes that data and practices from statements can be shared to find hot spots – and solutions. Businesses in sectors such as fashion and automotive are already collaborating, he says. “It is feet on the ground, corporates partnering with local reputable NGOs, who know how to put it right. Their ideas are largely around whistleblowing, empowering the worker.” He also hopes the UK will remain a world leader in modern slavery.

Legislation will ramp up, for sure, he says. “This is like domestic violence was 30 years ago. Police didn’t investigate, people didn’t speak out. And that has completely changed.

The supplier: Shayne Tyler

The prosecutor: Caroline Haughey

The campaigner: Andrew Wallis

The peer: Baroness Young of Hornsey

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