UK firms are focusing anti-slavery efforts on foreign supply chains and overlooking forced labour at home, according to research.
Academics said the Modern Slavery Act had prompted firms to be more open about tackling the problem overseas but there was a “blind spot” which “may stem from the assumption that the UK government is already handling the problem of forced labour within its borders, so companies do not need to”.
But the report said there were “design flaws” in public regulatory initiatives and “poor enforcement”.
In a paper published in the journal Regulation & Governance, Genevieve LeBaron, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, and Andrew Crane, professor of business and society at the University of Bath, said firms needed to report on the effectiveness of efforts and not just provide details of initiatives.
“There is without doubt value in company efforts to combat forced labour in supply chains operating in countries where national regulatory enforcement of labour standards is weak,” they said.
“Seldom acknowledged, however, is the fact that the problem is not exclusive to developing countries in the global south, but is also prevalent in developed countries in the north, including the UK.”
The report said slavery was a known problem in UK supply chains in food, construction and the garment and household goods industries.
“Problems such as the weak enforcement of labour law, poor oversight over labour providers and limited transparency in labour supply chains – combine with immigration laws that render migrant workers vulnerable to forced labour – mean that forced labour continues to thrive in UK-based industries.”
Meanwhile, a separate report from the anti-slavery commissioner, covering modern slavery among Vietnamese people in the UK, said the country was the second most common for victims. Albania is the first.
Between 2009 and 2016, 1,747 Vietnamese people were referred to the National Referral Mechanism, the UK victim agency. The most common sectors where they are found are forced labour in cannabis farms and nail bars and sexual exploitation.
The report said migrants paid smuggling agents up to £33,000 for a “premium service” with a direct route and minimal risk, compared to £10,000-20,000 for “economy services”.
“Despite the existence of legislation and the availability of longstanding Crown Prosecution Service guidelines for discontinuance of cases, some Vietnamese individuals who are recognised victims of forced labour (predominantly cannabis cultivation) have been criminalised,” said the report.
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