Improved legislation followed the deaths of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 ©Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Improved legislation followed the deaths of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 ©Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Modern slavery: a crime where the commodity is human life

About 40m people are trapped in slavery. The UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland is on a mission to eradicate it. SM meets him

In January 2018, the UK’s independent anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland wrote a letter to 25 FTSE 100 companies. These 25 companies were still identified then as non-compliant with the Modern Slavery Act (MSA), regarding their efforts – or apparent lack thereof – to address slavery in their supply chains.

At the time, Hyland said: “Despite some encouraging, positive change since the legislation came into force, 2016’s corporate modern slavery statements were patchy in quality, with some companies failing to produce them at all and others demonstrating little meaningful engagement with the issues.”

A few weeks before this letter was sent, Supply Management met with Hyland at his HQ in London. In an office adorned with global maps of slavery hotspots, photographs of Hyland meeting Pope Francis (which he has done several times) and the odd bit of Arsenal memorabilia, he passionately shared his thoughts on the vital role business must play in eradicating modern slavery.

The importance of strategy

A former senior police officer, Hyland was working for the Met running the human trafficking team before taking up the newly created role as independent anti-slavery commissioner in November 2014. (The role was created as part of the Modern Slavery Act.) The job sees him spearhead the UK’s fight against modern slavery, with a focus on strengthening law enforcement efforts in the UK and internationally, and helping to ensure slavery victims are identified and supported effectively by the authorities.

In his 30 years in the force, Hyland got close to the dark underbelly of organised crime and modern slavery in the UK and overseas. “What I realised,” he reflects, “is that this is a crime where the commodity is human life. Before, it wasn’t seen as that. People are exploited because they are vulnerable, and it’s the role of statutory agencies but also society to support and protect those who are vulnerable. This is an area where there is wholesale exploitation, but we can do something about it if we work collectively.”

In the time since becoming commissioner, he believes modern slavery is being looked at in a far more strategic and joined up way. “We are still in the early stages, but we are starting to adopt some of the processes that are used for other forms of crime,” he explains, such as coordinating more effectively with other agencies, like health services and local authorities. Whereas in the past law enforcement agencies weren’t recording incidents of modern slavery as crimes, now they are and the improvement has been “seismic”: a 160% increase in crime reporting in one year alone.

It is estimated that about 40m people around the world are trapped in some form of modern slavery; 16m of those are thought to be in the private economy, forced into working for companies globally. It’s that statistic that makes this horrendous crime very different to others because, in Hyland’s words, “it may be in the legitimate economy – the private sector has got a major role to play”.

The MSA is part of that role, with businesses with a turnover over £36m obliged to produce statements approved by the board, signed by a director and published on a website with a link from the homepage. But with the aforementioned quarter of FTSE firms not even bothering to comply at the end of last year, does it go far enough? For now at least, Hyland believes so.

Solutions, not punishment

“[The act] still needs to bed in and I don’t think it needs to be punitive at the moment,” he says. “What we need to do is encourage companies to speak about this in the boardroom. The legislation is about transparency, being open and honest. What it is trying to achieve needs to be better understood by businesses and better implemented, but the legislation has only been in for a year – let’s see where we are next year.”

What he wants to happen is for the statement to become more than the sum of its parts. “I don’t want it to be a tick box exercise; I want it to be the thing that makes stuff happen. A statement can be a wonderful thing, but what happens next? You can’t do that with punitive measures, because if you make it punitive, people will just do enough to get themselves over the line. We want to change the culture of business, not just create another process. I want companies to go above and beyond.”

As an example of a business doing just that, he cites the Co-op and its Bright Future programme, which gives work experience and job opportunities to former victims of modern slavery. He has also recognised Marks and Spencer, with its interactive supply chain mapping, FTSE 250 paving specialist Marshalls, which traces international stone supply chains in high-risk countries, and Hilton for collaborating with its peers.

“There are British businesses working under the radar abroad with NGOs to empower the people and communities,” he adds. In Vietnam, he visited one company, a high street retail brand, which is working with NGOs to create ambassadors of good working practices in its factories, with these ambassadors sharing the message of what good work should look like.

This theme of good work comes out loud and clear throughout our conversation. Hyland believes that work, like education, is one of the most important things to a cohesive, healthy society. “Work provides sustainable communities and stabilises a whole environment,” he says. “Good work is work that brings dignity. Not everyone has to earn a fortune but work needs to bring livelihoods and dignity. And that’s what businesses can do: bring dignity to areas where there is exploitation and poverty, by changing the process and ensuring things are done properly.”

He adds: “I don’t think any British business wants to engage in people being exploited, threatened or held against their will. I don’t think many businesses would justify using child labour. We need to tell businesses what this looks like, but also give them solutions.”

These solutions, he says, lie in businesses thinking about the processes – procurement, HR, quality control – they already engage in, but slightly differently. His welcome message to overwhelmed professionals: “We’re not expecting you to create a whole new raft of measures.”

For example, many risks are connected to poor workforce planning, linked to insufficient demand forecasting. “We always know Christmas is going to come, so there will be a greater demand on poultry farms,” Hyland says, as an example. “How well do you plan for that, to reduce the risk? When recruiting staff at those times, make sure there’s an ethical process that can fit year after year. Do you have a planning process for when you need high volumes of work for short periods of time? We need a structure that prevents criminals using the lack of planning as a vehicle for exploitation.”

Avoiding exploitation

Migrant labour shortages linked to Brexit make this risk particularly pertinent, and businesses must ensure the need for staff doesn’t play into the hands of criminal gangs. “There may be a smaller workforce available [after Brexit], but let’s make it a more accountable one,” says Hyland. “In some ways, there’s an opportunity that comes with Brexit to make sure things happen properly, because if the pool gets smaller, it also gives us the chance to make sure that pool is properly managed, supported and paid.”

With economic migrants coming to the UK for low paid, insecure or seasonal work, procurement and HR need to collaborate to ensure contracts have a degree of safeguarding in place. As the cost of living in the UK is higher than some might anticipate, workers can find themselves unable to afford a ticket home. So, Hyland advocates guaranteeing that their return fare will be paid. “Make sure there’s a process that gives people the chance to go home. How much does a coach cost to Eastern Europe? It’s never a fortune. We have to build things like assisted return into processes, so when a contract finishes, people can go home safely.”

An obsessive focus on driving cost out, by any means possible, makes the risk of exploitative working practices even higher. “If you know there’s a threshold that you cannot get below without causing exploitation, you cannot make that your business model,” says Hyland. “Have we got to the stage where you have to have exploitation in your business model to be competitive?”

This is of course part of a bigger picture, a wider conversation about capitalism and the purpose of business in society. And on this topic, Hyland urges more collaboration. “If we had a level playing field, with companies giving themselves thresholds they would not go below, some companies might lose contracts – but ethical business would start to be seen as the way forward. Big business has a voice. If it comes together, it can create change.”

The role of public opinion

The success of collaboration can be seen in the work high street brands have been doing to combat exploitation in Thailand’s sea fishing industry, he says. Conversely, in the Middle East there are examples of the risk of not collaborating, where “some construction companies created policies, and because others wouldn’t, it gave an unfair competitive edge [to the less ethical firms]”.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals give business the opportunity to show it can be for the wider good, rather than simply about achieving shareholder value at the cost of everything else. Goal 8 involves the eradication of modern slavery: ‘Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.’

“Businesses can act very quickly in a way that government can’t,” believes Hyland. “They can take brave decisions. Of course a company has to be profitable, but why not include as a term of success how we treat fellow mankind, how we develop other parts of the world and reduce risks? Those businesses in the long term will start to prosper.”

Success for ethical businesses will depend on consumer demand, something Hyland believes is growing, albeit slowly. Awareness must grow so slavery becomes “unacceptable” to the public, like domestic violence and drink driving, but it is not easy to influence behaviour. “If more companies get involved, the companies who aren’t [slavery free] will suffer and that will change consumer behaviour.”

He cites the horsemeat scandal as an example of how fast change can happen when consumers are outraged, with checks and balances introduced for meat quality and sourcing. “If we can do that for a commodity like meat, surely we can do it for human lives?”

And when supply chains matter to the public, the role of procurement becomes ever more important. “Procurement is at the heart of the value chain,” Hyland concludes. “This is serious, often organised, crime happening within your companies. You wouldn’t turn a blind eye to drug dealing or money laundering. You would want to stamp it out. While you might not directly be the employer, it’s your supply chain and you have a responsibility.”

Go further with CIPS modern slavery resources.

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