Anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton said procurement professionals are central to reducing slavery in supply chains
Anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton said procurement professionals are central to reducing slavery in supply chains

Slavery issue needs ‘Blue Planet moment’

Consumer awareness is crucial to drive the issue of modern slavery in businesses, according to the UK’s anti-slavery tsar.

Dame Sara Thornton, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, told SM modern slavery needed its ‘Blue Planet moment’, referencing the impact that David Attenborough’s television series had on the issue of single-use plastics on consumer awareness. 

While some consumers are beginning to question the consequences of items costing very little and what that may mean for those making those items within the supply chain, Thornton said we’re yet to reach the tipping point. Part of the reason for this is due to slavery and trafficking being hidden from sight. 

Thornton, who took up the role of anti-slavery commissioner in May 2019, added part of the issue stems from the complicated nature of how firms measure their social impact throughout supply chains. 

“Companies can probably point to four or five different metrics for measuring plastic or carbon and present you with the data. It's not clear what the equivalent is in terms of slavery and trafficking. 

“There is nothing you can point to and say, ‘This is an organisation which takes its responsibilities both within its own organisation and its supply chain seriously'. It's much more complicated,” she said. 

While many firms work with auditors to identify risks in the supply chain, auditing alone is not sufficient, Thornton added. Instead businesses should be focused on a combination of announced and unannounced audits, mapping risks within supply chains and visiting suppliers for themselves. 

Questions firms should be considering include, “What are the arrangements for staff engagement? Are there integrity lines or whistleblowing arrangements? How does the organisation respond to staff raising concerns?” she said. 

Thornton continued this should be core business for those working in procurement, who are making commercial arrangements with suppliers, from recruitment and throughout the contract lifecycle. 

“Sometimes there is a tension between what people say their values are and what happens in practice. You want people to be treated properly, to not work excessive overtime and to be paid the minimum wage, but then say, ‘We want 20,000 of these items by Tuesday’. How on earth is the supplier going to deliver that?

“People in procurement are central to this. It's their responsibility to think about this when suppliers are put under pressure,” she said.

In July 2019, the UK government published its response to an independent review conducted by MPs into the effectiveness of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA). A  public consultation into criticisms within the review is currently under way and closes on 17 September. 

In its response, the government said it would publish its own modern slavery statement later this year. As an organisation which spends £284bn each year on goods and services from suppliers, Thornton believes this is a step in the right direction but added: “It's easy to say it but the proof will be doing it.”

Earlier this year, former prime minister Theresa May outlined plans for a central registry of modern slavery statements by firms. The Home Office said 75% of in-scope organisations have published a statement while the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre puts this number at 23%, Thornton said. 

“I hope the consultation doesn't in any way undermine its agreement to do this, because I think it's really important that government hosts the registry. We can't be in a situation where we don't really know how many companies are compliant,” Thornton said. 

While the government response did not commit to any sanctions for businesses that fail to comply with the law, Thornton reiterated she believes civil sanctions such as fines and director disqualifications should be explored to hold firms to account. 

Thornton’s predecessor, Kevin Hyland, and the review were critical of the independence of the role of the anti-slavery commissioner. Both aired concerns that Hyland had not been free to criticise the government’s role in tackling modern slavery. 

Thornton said in an ideal world she would present her reports directly to Parliament but within the current legal construct surrounding the role, she will “fiercely guard” her independence.

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