Should penalties be tougher for firms that fail on slavery reporting?
Should penalties be tougher for firms that fail on slavery reporting?

Lessons from the deaths of 39 people in a lorry

28 October 2019

The UK media have been highlighting the deaths of 39 people found in a refrigerated lorry at Grays in Essex.

It has been reported that eight woman and 31 men were discovered dead at the back of the lorry on Wednesday last week. Since the initial reports some of the victims have been named. One of the women (a 19-year-old woman from Vietnam is feared to be among the victims) sent a text to her mother apologising and saying that she was dying. It is reported that Bui Thi Nhung paid a smuggler more than $10,000 to travel to the UK hoping to work in a nail bar.

The shock that has been expressed reflects the enormity of the discovery. The truck driver, a 25-year-old man named Maurice Robinson from Northern Ireland has been charged with manslaughter, conspiracy to traffick people, conspiracy to assist unlawful migration and money laundering. Detectives are also considering a wider conspiracy amid claims that the lorry could have been part of a convoy of three carrying around 100 people.

It is reported the cargo truck had a Bulgarian registration and was registered to a company owned by a woman from Ireland. Belgium authorities have not confirmed that the truck started its journey there. The container was shipped from  Zeebrugge on Tuesday afternoon to Purfleet port in Essex. The trailer was leased in Ireland from Global Trailer Rentals Ltd (GTR). The company directors at GTR have said they were ‘shell shocked’ and would make data available to the investigators.

This is not the first time that we have witnessed this kind of tragedy. In 2015, 71 migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were found suffocated in the back of a refrigerated truck which was abandoned on the Austrian highway close to Hungary.

The tragedy raises many questions. What causes 39 people to risk everything on a promise to be brought to the UK for work? How should companies be identifying and mitigating the risk of human trafficking? How does this type of incident impact on the reputation of companies that find themselves inadvertently involved through their operations? Should the ports of entry change their surveillance methods? What about the role of governments in addressing the issue?

Different reports have suggested reasons why these people may have left their homeland. One of the reports mentions that some of the victims came from a region in Vietnam where the community has been destroyed by environmental disaster in 2016 when a steel mill contaminated coastal waters, devastating the local fishing and tourism industries. Others state that the reason is the economic gain – the average salary in the UK compared to small cities in the East is huge. Other reports highlight that there is a wide network of Vietnamese people in the UK who can help newcomers with accommodation and employment. In the UK there is a high demand for low-skilled labour in Vietnamese restaurants, nail salons and the illicit cannabis industry. 

Companies incorporated in the UK or carrying on business in the UK with a turnover of £36 million or above are required by the UK Modern Slavery Act to publish an annual modern slavery statement, setting out the steps they are taking to address modern slavery in their supply chain. The obligation does not require mandatory reporting but the trend towards mandatory reporting and due diligence globally should encourage business to take a less reactive response to these issues by developing a responsible business framework. Despite the law, it is apparent that the freight industry and ports have to reconsider managing their risk. This will extend to suppliers and retailers where refrigerated trucks are engaged in lawful transit of supply of goods but get hijacked along the way.

What are the lessons we can learn from this?

1. Without international collaboration, this growing crime cannot be tackled where the criminals are increasingly agile, preying on the vulnerability of victims and providing a false sense of hope.

2. Enforcement of these crimes should address the current lacuna where the risks are low and the rewards for traffickers are high.

3. Authorities that are managing ports need to consider what kind of surveillance methods should be put in place to detect any kind of wrongdoing. There is a debate on whether making passage safer for migrants may be another way of dealing with the challenge of human trafficking more effectively.

4. Environmental pollution can impact populations and contribute to human rights abuses.

5. Businesses involved in logistics and transportation have to give more consideration to their supply chains. Should GTR have undertaken some due diligence before it leased the trailer? What about other companies where trucks carry fresh products or produce? What risks are there that traffickers can ‘highjack’ these to gain illegal passage into the UK? 

6. Notwithstanding the lack of legal enforcement for failing to report on modern slavery risks in supply chains, business should consider the impact on their reputation and take proactive steps to develop responsible business frameworks.

7. The routes that are commonly used for Vietnamese migrants attempting to travel to the UK (France, China, Russia, Germany and Poland) should act as a warning to logistics and freight companies and to the authorities.

8. Consideration should be given to whether reporting legislation that calls for companies to be more transparent about how they are managing their human rights and environmental impacts should be amended to introduce tougher penalties where companies fail to identify the steps taken to address human trafficking/ modern slavery in their supply chains.

9. Governments need to do more to ensure that traffickers are brought to account for their deeds.

10. Finally, under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights there is a requirement for ‘remedy’ where there is abuse of human rights. Should there be an international system where compensation is paid to the families left with huge unpayable debts where they have paid traffickers on the promise of a lie?

Our sympathy and prayers rest with the families of these victims.

☛ Colleen Theron is director at modern slavery risk consultancy Ardea International 

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