Research has found 40% of government's top suppliers did not have legally compliant slavery statements © DPA/PA Images
Research has found 40% of government's top suppliers did not have legally compliant slavery statements © DPA/PA Images

Whitehall faces 'huge challenge' to tackle supply chain slavery

6 December 2018

The government needs to root out slavery from firms operating “below the radar” if it is to succeed in its pledge to remove modern slavery from companies in its own supply chains, campaigners have warned.

The concerns have been raised in response to a speech by prime minister Theresa May at the G20 summit in Argentina, when she announced that next year the government will publish the steps it is taking to identify and prevent slavery in its supply chains.

In Parliament on Monday, May described this as a “huge challenge” and added: “Last financial year the UK government spent £47bn on public procurement – demonstrating just how important this task is.”

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act (MSA) requires firms whose annual turnover is more than £36m to report every year on what they have done to tackle slavery in their operations, but this does not include public bodies. Unlike Australia’s new slavery law, the UK’s does not apply to government departments.

More than 40% of central government’s top 100 suppliers have failed to produce modern slavery statements that are legally compliant, according to a report released earlier this year by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell.

And in April this year, figures released by TISCreport revealed that more than half of UK firms are falling behind when it comes to complying with the MSA.

Nearly one in three (31%) supply chain professionals do not believe their business is doing enough to tackle modern slavery, according to CIPS research released in July.

May told MPs the new law “was an important step, but there is much more for us to do”.

Responding to the remarks, Caroline Robinson director of Focus on Labour Exploitation, said: “Clearly, there is a huge amount of work ahead to resolve this and to ensure that the government lives up to its aim of tackling this human rights abuse.”

In contrast to well-known companies, many government suppliers are not known to the public and do not have the same pressure or scrutiny over dealing with slavery, according to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

Cindy Berman, head of modern slavery strategy, ETI, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “It is precisely in the most hidden places that the worst exploitation of workers is found.”    

She added: “That includes companies operating below the radar supplying goods and services to the government.”

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