Chief executives of 17,000 businesses are to receive letters from the government telling them to publish more information about how they are fighting modern slavery.
If the recipients don’t publish annual modern slavery transparency statements they run the risk of being named as breaking the law.
Under the Modern Slavery Act, companies with a turnover of more than £36m must publish the annual statements, setting out what they are doing to stop modern slavery and forced labour occurring in their supply chains.
But 40% of these companies have yet to do this, according to the Home Office. Even some of those who have published the information fail because of poor quality.
“Whilst there are many examples of good practice, some of these statements are poor in quality or fail to even meet the basic legal requirements,” said the department.
“Some businesses are already leading the way in taking action by being open and transparent about what they are doing to identify, tackle and prevent forced labour in their supply chains, but too many are still failing to meet their basic legal obligations,” said Victoria Atkins, minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability.
“It is horrible to think some of the goods and services we buy could have been produced by someone forced into modern slavery,” she added. “We will not tolerate it.”
Meanwhile, MPs have said procurement policies are central to ending exploitation in supermarket supply chains.
In a Commons debate, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy said the government would be “incredibly powerful” if procurement policies “made it clear that they would not source from companies that could not give absolute assurance that there was not slavery in their supply chain”.
But supermarkets had to shoulder their fair share of the blame, and the “unparalleled choice” of the supermarket model was a “big part of the problem,” she continued.
“Tesco and Carrefour have teamed up to buy products. The planned merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda would see them control more than 30% of the UK groceries retail market.
“They have promised that, if the merger goes ahead, they will cut shelf prices on key items by 10%, which will cause yet more downward pressure on prices for suppliers.”
A motion, tabled by McCarthy, was passed by MPs urging the government to “help ensure tangible steps are taken” to protect workers and farmers in food supply chains.
“There are key actions supermarkets can take, from conducting human rights due diligence in line with UN guiding principles on business and human rights to respecting living wage and income benchmarks in supplier negotiations,” said McCarthy. “Needless to say, they should be paying their own staff the living wage too. Supermarkets need to end the fantasy of social audits, which are almost entirely for PR purposes.
“If the government want to lead on this issue internationally, a law of due diligence, whereby companies need to demonstrate they are actively seeking to end slavery in supply chains, would be a good place to start. A wider definition of supply chain liability is needed, so that real or feigned ignorance is not a justifiable excuse when instances of slavery are revealed.”
Atkins responded by saying the government was establishing a transparency in supply chains advisory group to guide policy. “Later this year, we will be revising the business guidance on modern slavery reporting, and businesses can now register on the modern slavery contacts database for guidance and resources to help them report effectively,” she said.
This week, McCarthy told SM shoppers should treat cheap food with the same suspicion as cheap clothes for fear of labour abuse in the supply chain.
“We can’t be complacent about where our food comes from. As we have learned to do with cheap clothes – to a certain extent – we need to question the cost and origin,” she said.