The Seasonal Workers Scheme was expanded to aid farmers tackle to the labour crisis © Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images
The Seasonal Workers Scheme was expanded to aid farmers tackle to the labour crisis © Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Why modern slavery risks 'falling off procurement's radar'

5 October 2022

Procurement and supply professionals are being warned not to let the issue of slavery become “sidelined” as the post of UK anti-slavery commissioner remains unfilled.

Malcolm Harrison, group CEO of CIPS, said procurement teams must stay alert to the risk of labour abuses as the government agrees an increase in the number of visas for seasonal workers.

Harrison said: “Amongst all the issues and challenges faced by supply chain managers in today’s volatile environment, awareness of modern slavery in the supply chain is in danger of falling off the radar.”

The UK has not had an independent anti-slavery commissioner since April, when Dame Sara Thornton’s three-year term ended. 

Harrison continued: “Without an anti-slavery commissioner in place, and a slowdown in the number of investigations the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority have been able to complete, there could be less support for organisations when abuses are found. So it is more important than ever for our profession to be vigilant.

“Supply chain managers must not allow the issue of human trafficking and modern slavery to be sidelined. Ethics in procurement and supply must remain at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Stay alert with your suppliers, check if you are sourcing from countries with fewer worker protections and keep raising the issues with colleagues.”

The government said its Seasonal Workers Scheme, which was first introduced in 2019, had increased the number of visas issued rose to 40,000, up from just 2,500 when the scheme started.

The scheme was expanded following shortages of workers following Brexit and Covid caused disruption to the UK's supply chains, especially in the horticultural sector where farmers warned the labour crisis could lead to food shortages

Harrison said: “To solve the problem of a shortage of seasonal workers in the UK, an increase in the number of temporary work visas has been approved. This decision may have just created another problem by reducing controls on who can work in the UK. Human rights and liberties will be affected if businesses are not aware of what is happening in their supply chains and the reputational risk for organisations will also be elevated.”

Dame Sara told The Guardian the government “needs to deal with the potential for worker abuse and the danger of debt bondage” before expanding the number of seasonal workers permitted further. 

“We need to be really careful. I understand why they want to do this but these workers will be vulnerable,” she added.

“We need to ensure that they’re not subjected to recruitment fees, we need to ensure that they don’t come here in debt bondage and that they’re able to have a contract in their own language and to [report concerns].”

The Office for the Anti-Slavery Commissioner said it had “no remit” to contribute to new work until the role is filled. 

A spokesperson for the office told Supply Management: “We welcome the appointment [of the new commmissioner] when it comes and we look forward to working them.”

The government has been approached for comment. 

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