Businesses must go beyond box-ticking in order to eradicate modern slavery from supply chains, according to anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton.
In a report evaluating the impact of Operation Fort, the UK’s largest slavery prosecution, Dame Sara said employers and businesses did not have enough safeguards in place for temporary workers, could have better educated their workforces on spotting signs of exploitation, did not have clear reporting protocols and should have been more proactive.
Following a court case that saw eight members of a Polish crime gang convicted in July last year of slavery, trafficking and money laundering, Dame Sara wrote to 15 retailers affected by the case to ask what measures they were taking to ensure suppliers were not using slave labour.
“Operation Fort sends a clear warning that no supply chain is safe from worker exploitation,” she said. “The businesses in which the men and women were exploited supplied goods to major retailers across the UK. Any of us could have unwittingly purchased goods produced by victims of modern slavery in this country.
“It is clear that businesses need to go beyond a box-ticking approach to preventing exploitation. I have been encouraged so far by the business response to Operation Fort but we cannot become complacent.”
During a press launch of the report Judith Batchelar, director of brand at Sainsbury’s, said it was a “catalyst for the journey we are all going to make” and it required collective action across business.
“Legal compliance… is simply not enough. We have to go beyond compliance; we have to work collaboratively in a pre-competitive space.”
Batchelar said data and intelligence should be shared, while the coronavirus pandemic was highlighting inequalities in society. “We’re going to have to raise our game proportionally if we are to protect the vulnerable in our communities and supply chains.”
She said anti-slavery requirements were written into terms and conditions with suppliers including a combination of ongoing self-assessment questionnaires and audits. “That’s part of the hurdle of being a supplier to us,” she said.
Jemima Jewell, interim corporate responsibility lead at Waitrose, said: “One of the things we focus on is around having as long-term relations as possible with our suppliers and price negotiations face to face.” She said it was important to be clear about what impact tackling slavery issues would have on price.
Operation Fort involved an estimated 400 victims aged from 17 to 60s, often ex-offenders, the homeless and those with addictions, who were recruited in Poland and taken to the West Midlands at very short notice, sometimes an hour, with the promise of work.
Workers were housed in squalid rental properties and worked in farms, factories, waste-recycling plants and parcel-sorting warehouses. The crime only came to light when victims met a Polish charity outreach worker at a soup kitchen. It is estimated the criminals earned more than £2m between 2012 and 2017.
Earlier this week a poll showed two-fifths of senior staff in financial services believed slavery did not exist in the UK.
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