Failure to appoint an anti-slavery commissioner leaves ‘victims high and dry’

12 January 2023

Appointing a new independent anti-slavery commissioner is a “matter of urgency” to ensure tackling slavery in supply chains is not “deprioritised”, says Malcom Harrison, CEO of CIPS.

As we tore open our presents on Christmas morning, I doubt many of us gave much thought to where or how our gifts were made, or the people involved in producing them. But the horrible reality is that some of the items so lovingly presented may have been made by people exploited and abused. 

The anti-slavery charity Unseen estimates that there are as many as 50 million modern day slaves worldwide, with more than 100,000 of these within the UK itself. 

In 2015 the government passed the Modern Slavery Act, a ground-breaking piece of legislation designed to combat modern slavery within the UK. It created the role of an independent anti-slavery commissioner and made it a legal requirement to have a commissioner in post.

Yet, it has been vacant since April 2022 when the last commissioner, Dame Sarah Thornton, left the role, and the latest attempts to fill the vacancy now appear to have been scrapped.

The delay is down to a review of the criteria of what makes individuals victims of modern slavery with an expectation that the bar will be set higher. But failure to appoint a new commissioner sends the wrong message at the wrong time. 

Complex international supply chains, high levels of potential victims being trafficked to the UK and an economic downturn call for greater scrutiny and accountability, not less. Government must fill this role, as a matter of urgency to send a clear message that tackling abuses is a priority. 

We all have a role to play in ending modern slavery. But the one played by those who manage the complex supply chains, upon which we all depend for the goods and services we consume, is critical. Overwhelmingly they are doing the right thing by committing to transparency and publishing modern slavery statements. But identifying cases of abuse and exploitation of workers is not an easy task.

Through my discussions with business and procurement leaders, I believe many want to do more to root out slavery from their supply chains, but often lack the expertise and resources to do so. Whether it is the responsibility of the CEO or procurement team to find slavery in a supply chain, having trained and skilled professionals in place will make success more likely.

Occasionally, businesses fall short. In the UK big-brand fashion companies have been exposed for poor working conditions, while a recent report into the automotive sector found that major car makers have supply chain exposure to goods made with forced labour. I am pretty sure that similar issues will exist across other sectors, such as construction, but they should not.

The year 2023 offers both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because with the economy in recession and inflated prices putting a squeeze on margins, there is a risk that tackling slavery in supply chains is deprioritised.

But it also offers an opportunity for organisations and government to demonstrate their commitment to tackling this issue by renewing policies, complying with regulation, and implementing a zero-tolerance approach. 

The government plans to introduce a new Modern Slavery Bill in the coming months. This is a chance to reiterate our commitment, as a country and as a society, to tackling modern slavery, to demand transparency across supply chains and ensure processes are in place to minimise instances of exploitation.

The independent anti-slavery commissioner should have a vital role in scrutinising this new legislation during its passage through Parliament so further delay in making an appointment is not acceptable.

We, at CIPS, are eager to work with policymakers and NGOs to build on the direction of the new laws and demonstrate how best practice within procurement and supply chain management can give us the tools to create a more ethical society. 

It is neither easy nor comfortable to think about the role we are all playing, however unwittingly, in the exploitation of other human beings. But we owe it to the individuals trapped in these despicable circumstances to not close our eyes. 

Now is not the time to let up, but to press on and do more to rid the world of this terrible crime. 

☛ Malcolm Harrison, CEO, CIPS


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