New labour abuse prevention officers to investigate slavery cases

13 June 2016

More details have emerged about how new powers enabling the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) to tackle modern slavery will work.

As part of its rebrand into the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) in October, new “labour abuse prevention officers” will be created to investigate reports of labour exploitation, including modern slavery.

GLA is the official licensing body of all suppliers of labour to the UK’s agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and associated packaging industries.

The changes will not increase the GLA’s powers as a licensing authority, but will give the organisation the scope to investigate offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

“The licensing regime as it currently stands will remain unaffected,” said GLA head of business change and development Mark Heath. “But from the first of October, the GLAA will be able to investigate offences against the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and also have the power to investigate offences under the Employment Agencies Act of 1973 and the National Minimum Wage Act of 1988.”

He added the labour abuse prevention officers’ “primary function will be to investigate labour exploitation, including modern slavery and human trafficking.”

Currently fresh produce is the only industry in the UK to have a compulsory licensing authority for labour suppliers. However, Heath said the Modern Slavery Act has made other industries consider where labour abuses might be taking place in their own supply chains.

Debt bondage is a common way to trap people into modern slavery, said Heath. Workers will be loaned the cost of travel, with the promise of work to pay their debts once they’re in the UK. The cost of accommodation once trafficked is often added onto the worker’s debt. 

“At that point this individual that’s come across will have got a debt for the transport and immediately then get a debt on top of that for the accommodation,” said Heath.

He continued: “The workers will then be directed towards what will be or what may be a completely unsuspecting labour provision business or an agency, and the workers will be told to register at that agency, giving the details that the controller wants to be given.”

This might include details of a bank account set up by the controller in the worker’s name. “Once that worker goes into the agency, starts work, and is paid the wages through the bank account for example, that bank account will be controlled by the person that’s controlling the worker,” said Heath.

Heath believes the GLA is well placed help companies outside of the fresh produce industry develop safeguards to spot supply chain slavery.

“What we encourage businesses to do is to continue a dialogue with workers, to ask workers how they're being treated. Are their expectations of working in the UK what they thought? … Take a little bit more time over conversations with your workers to make sure, if you can, that there isn’t any element of control behind the scenes,” he said.

He also suggests employment agencies using digital payroll systems scan their records to see if multiple employees have the same contact details, addresses or bank account details, a sign modern slavery might be happening. 

“There are significant numbers of audits that are conducted of businesses to make sure that businesses are operating in a way that meets ethical trading standards, and what we encourage businesses to do is to extend that ethical trading audit mechanism to look again, a little bit more closely, at the labour provision,” said Heath.

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