Anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton does not believe criminal sanctions are appropriate © Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton does not believe criminal sanctions are appropriate © Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Slavery reporting penalties 'too light', says commissioner

29 July 2019

Sanctions for businesses failing to comply with the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) should be as strong as those for not complying with GDPR or health and safety standards. 

Sara Thornton, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, said businesses deciding on priorities would focus on the laws with the strongest penalties.

Speaking at an event held by financial crime agency Themis in London, she said: “If you're sitting in a business and you look at GDPR and all the issues around data, the sanctions for getting that wrong are pretty high. For health and safety, the sanctions for getting that wrong are pretty high. If you look at issues around bribery and corruption, the sanctions for getting that wrong are very high.

“I can see people are being hard-headed about this, but actually how does [slavery] weigh off against all the requirements on this company? I do think [sanctions] feel a little bit light compared to those other issues which are not a million miles away.”

While the home secretary is able to take out an injunction against companies for failing to adequately report on how they are tackling the issue of slavery within their supply chains, this is yet to happen, said Thornton. 

Earlier this month, the government issued its response to an independent review which examined the effectiveness of the MSA. In response to recommendations made by MPs, the government has launched a consultation looking into issues such as sanctions for failure to report.

Thornton believes criminal sanctions are not appropriate at this stage but added: “If we're going to go towards civil sanctions, we need to think about who's going to do the enforcement and that needs to be properly resourced.”

Andrew Wallis, CEO of non-profit organisation Unseen, agreed that the issue of sanctions in response to non-compliance presents difficulties in practice. 

He said: “What’s the leverage that those businesses at the top have over tiers two, three, four, five et cetera? If you’re going to punish at the top, I think we’ve got to think really carefully about how we do that.”

Wallis added he does not like the idea of fines on businesses as it could encourage businesses to do the bare minimum in order to avoid paying out, instead suggesting director disqualifications could be more appropriate, providing there is proof they knowingly failed to report properly. 

“In the last 40 years, globalisation has sent supply chains all over the world. Supply chains have become supply webs with multiple tier organisations seeking to find the cheapest place to do work and source materials from. Globalisation has done a lot of good but it's also thrown tens of millions of people into situations of forced labour,” he said.

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