A charity boss has said governments must change their behaviour on modern slavery otherwise they will make no progress tackling the issue.
Justine Currell, executive director of anti-slavery charity Unseen UK, said that despite the raft of legislation on labour abuse introduced in recent years, the government has yet “to create an environment where we don’t accept it”.
Currell, who is also deputy police and crime commissioner for Bedfordshire, said: “Two-and-a-half years down the line [from the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA)] many businesses are not complying.”
Speaking at the Modern Slavery and Ethical Labour in Construction Leadership Symposium in London, she said: “Governments are the same. They sign up to it in principle but then say, ‘If it’s going to affect our relationship with business then we’re not interested’.
“If we’re going to change behaviour we need to start at the top. If we don’t, we won’t move on.”
Separately, research has indicated there is a “real risk” of slavery in the UK government’s supply chains.
A report revealed that a third of uniform suppliers for public sector workers have not yet complied with the MSA by reporting how they are tackling the issue.
Only 10 suppliers out of 30 surveyed have published a slavery and human trafficking statement, despite clothing manufacturing being notorious for labour abuses, it said.
Those who have yet to publish a statement include suppliers to the armed forces and prison officers, according to the report by corporate accountability charities CORE Coalition and ICAR (the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable).
“The evidence from our research suggests there is a real risk that UK government supply chains could be tainted by slavery,” said Marilyn Croser, director of CORE.
The criticism follows an announcement by the UK government that it will “prevent and address human trafficking in government procurement practices”, working together with authorities in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Announced by the US at the United Nations General Assembly meeting earlier this week, the governments signed up to principles which would see them develop policies that require both their procurement officers and contractors to “assess the nature and extent of potential exposure to human trafficking in their supply chains”.
The announcement did not come with any concrete policy, but a vow by the Department for International Development (DFID) to “analyse, develop and implement measures to identify, prevent and reduce the risk of human trafficking in government procurement supply chains”.
The countries will also “encourage the private sector” to tackle the problem by setting out “clear expectations” for businesses on their responsibility “to conduct appropriate due diligence in their supply chains”. They would provide “tools and incentives” to "encourage meaningful action and public reporting of their efforts,” it said.
DFID also said it would make “reasonable efforts” to share information and work with other committed governments, and to try to “align existing and proposed laws” to combat trafficking in global supply chains.
A senior government anti-slavery official has pointed the finger squarely at enforcement authorities for “missing a trick” on the matter.
“Perpetrators continue to operate because we keep information to ourselves. We need to share information,” said Mark Heath, deputy director of business change at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).
“Law enforcement needs to realise that there are others in the room,” he added.