Three things you can do about slavery

Daniel Ball
27 November 2019

More than 200 years after the slave trade was abolished by Parliament, as many as 100,000 men, women and children could be trapped in slavery and being abused daily in the UK, according to leading charity Anti-Slavery.

A new initiative, ‘Find it, fix it, prevent it’ aims to stamp out modern slavery in the UK. Launched by charity fund managers CCLA (Churches, Charities and Local Authorities), the three-year scheme will work with investors to encourage UK businesses to find and help victims of exploitation within their supply chains. Backed by the UN, it’s hoped the scheme will put businesses under increasing pressure to stop using suppliers that perpetuate slavery.

Putting an end to modern slavery is crucial since some examples of it are ‘hidden in plain sight’ in the UK, including the following:

Washing cars for below the minimum wage

Hand car washes (HCW) have become a common sight in the UK. There are up to 20,000 such businesses nationwide and many of these low-cost operations have replaced the automated car washing machines previously seen at petrol stations. But while these car washes’ numbers soared, darker aspects of their no-frills business practices soon came under scrutiny.

Government investigators regularly found car wash prices as low as £5, so it was immediately apparent that many HCW workers were not being given basic rights, such as being paid the minimum wage. Digging deeper, researchers ultimately found that many car washes were attracting and enslaving workers from Eastern European and Balkan countries.

What is the price of a good night’s sleep?

In February 2016, a bed manufacturing business in Yorkshire was found to be enslaving large numbers of Hungarian workers. When they investigated the site in Dewsbury, police officers found the workers had no contracts and were made to work 60-hours or more each week, earning as little as £20, while being made to live in terrible living conditions and threatened with violence if they complained.

Later it was found the manufacturer sold its products to major UK department stores, but the retailers’ supply chain audits had failed to spot that one of their key suppliers had systematically enslaved and abused its workforce.

Egg production workers living in squalor

A high-profile case few years ago saw the exploitation by a food company of scores of Lithuanian migrants that had been enticed to the UK with the promise of a better life.

The new arrivals were immediately debt-bonded and forced into working as chicken catchers and egg collectors to pay off the employer’s forced loan. Many migrants were victims of violence. The workers’ conditions were appalling; frequently denied adequate food and accommodation and deprived of sleep. As they worked they were forced to urinate and defecate into carrier bags.

In the High Court, the employer was found guilty of failing to pay the minimum wage, making unlawful deductions from enslaved persons’ pay and failing to make adequate provisions for eating, drinking and resting. The employer was ordered to pay compensation of over £1 million. UK supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and others boycotted the supplier because of the way it had treated its staff.

Here are some of the things your organisation can do:

1. Check your supply chain in detail

Organisations’ most effective anti-slavery tool is to rigorously monitor and act over potential slavery in supply chains. Because they are often extended and feature outsourced contract arrangements, supply chains are often difficult to analyse. It is crucial that your company monitors them closely, finding out exactly where all your goods and services are sourced, confirming partner organisations’ responsibilities and how and where they produce the raw materials or services that you sell on or use.

Once you’ve gathered all this information, you can put together a plan of action detailing how you intend to fight modern slavery. It will probably involve issuing your suppliers with a checklist, outlining all the areas in their operations where you will need evidence of how they are complying with employment law and mitigating the potential for modern slavery in their own supply arrangements.

2. Comply with The Modern Slavery Act 2015

Any business with a turnover exceeding £36m has to produce a slavery and human trafficking statement. In this document, businesses must report on key aspects of their supply chains including modern slavery and human trafficking policies. The statement must identify the risk of modern slavery and detail steps taken to mitigate that risk, while the business should deliver staff training and build operational capacity to tackle these issues.

3. Consider trying to raise awareness yourself

We surveyed over 500 people to assess awareness and understanding of modern slavery and it’s clear that businesses need to take more responsibility in the fight against it. It was troubling to discover that 62% of employees know nothing about the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Only one in five (20%) of people could say that their employer has a modern slavery statement. Only by raising awareness of the issue and the remedies for it, we can end these terrible practices – for good.

☛ Daniel Ball is business development director at Wax Digital 

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