A year on, is the Modern Slavery Act working?
Shaun McCarthy and Helen Carter of the Supply Chain School analyse the progress made in the past 12 months since the Modern Slavery Act came into force and what still needs to be done.
A week is said to be a long time in politics, but when it comes to the process of bringing through new legislation, 12 months can fly by pretty fast. The Modern Slavery Act, heralded as a first for Europe on its pre-Brexit introduction, is now already one year old.
Much has undoubtedly been done over this initial period to make businesses aware of their new and very demanding responsibilities under the Act. In addition, the new prime minister has immediately thrown her weight behind it with a pledge to provide £33m of funding to help fight exploitation.
However, a question mark still hangs over the degree and speed of implementation happening on the ground: how much of this awareness is actually being turned into action?
What is the Act?
The Act is a legal mechanism that allows authorities to charge individuals and organisations found to be involved in human trafficking or labour exploitation. Every organisation, regardless of size, is bound by the legislation.
Enhanced public visibility and accountability measures do, however, give it an added dimension in the corporate arena, where organisations with a global turnover above £36m are formally required to publish a statement detailing what they have been doing on modern slavery during their financial year. This declaration, covering both their organisation and their supply chain, must be officially approved and signed by a director, member or partner.
As well as making involvement in trafficking and labour exploitation illegal, the Act provides support to victims through civil cases and compensation, which loads a financial risk, as well as a reputational risk, onto non-compliance.
Spreading the word
Representative organisations, trade bodies and the media have all helped spread the word. In procurement circles, Supply Management, the publication of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply has been running a campaign.
In construction, the CIOB has issued a series of reports on the state of labour exploitation in supply chains – the most recent being Building a Fairer System: Tackling Modern Slavery in Construction Supply Chains – and collaborated with the multi-stakeholder initiative Stronger Together to develop advice and guidance for its membership.
Our own Supply Chain School has also issued guidance, to be supplemented with e-learning, workshops, toolbox talk materials and more.
Where are we now?
The question is, has it worked? The good news from a sample survey of the 14,000 members of the Supply Chain School is that three quarters of respondents said they knew what the Act covers and how it affects their organisation. Less encouraging is the finding that just more than half (51%) either did not know, or were unsure what steps to take if they found modern slavery in their business or supply chain. While the awareness campaign might be a success, there is now an urgent need to turn it into action.
Importantly, when asked whether the UK should take a leadership role on the issue, as proposed by the PM, the response was hugely positive, with 84% voting in agreement. This suggests a clear mandate for construction to be both visible and vocal on the matter.
What action has been taken?
So, who is getting it right? One example of a company both showing awareness and engaging in action is leading UK landscape materials brand Marshalls, whose statement provides a clear, detailed and measurable approach to combating slavery and labour exploitation within its supply chain. A client exemplar might be Marks & Spencer, which recently published a map to illustrate its global supply chain and identify where the biggest risks exist.
Initiatives such as these were not produced overnight, but that level of commitment is what we as an industry need to focus on achieving, to help deliver the modal shift in attitudes needed and ensure that victims are helped where they are found.
What needs to be done?
This is a complex problem and there is no simple solution. So, when turning awareness into action, breaking your risks down into manageable chunks can help and there are three key areas to focus on over time:
- Your own recruitment processes – ensuring you are checking recruits for legality and looking for signs such as common addresses, telephone numbers and bank details;
- Temporary and subcontract labour – ensuring your onsite staff are aware what to look for and your subcontractors are putting recruitment checks in place that mirror or even surpass your own;
- Your supply chain – this is the holy grail and will not be transformed overnight, but it is essential you have a plan for how to tackle your risks over the next few years.
Admittedly, wherever compliance is a driver, tokenism and box-ticking are seldom far behind. Online questionnaires simply asking the supplier to declare whether they operate any slavery practices clearly fall into that category. However, prequalification questionnaires with good, open questions about what the organisation is doing to address the issue can be of great value.
Audits also have their place, but it should be noted modern slavery is often associated with highly organised criminal activity which can be hard to detect.
Educating the workforce about their rights is therefore critical, with much to be done between government, business and labour organisations to make this happen. Of course, to educate workforces you need to know where they actually are based and active. Disclosure of manufacturing locations in public has been shunned in many sectors, citing security and commercial confidentiality concerns. However, forward-thinking companies such as Adidas are doing this, believing their customers have the right to know where their goods are made.
A secure and confidential grievance mechanism is also essential – workers need to know it is available in their own language and must have confidence in using it.
Will our supply chains ever be 100% slavery free?
Probably not. It is a bit like trying to be 100% injury free – it has to be the aspiration, but can never be guaranteed. However, if the massive strides in health and safety in recent years can be emulated with respect to modern slavery, the world will be a happier and fairer place.