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Theresa May promised to defeat modern slavery – so why is she letting employers off the hook?

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If the government is serious about tackling modern slavery, it must close the loophole that allows businesses to ignore the risk within supply chains

Brexit isn’t the only policy area that this rudderless government has made a mess of.

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016, she made defeating the evil of modern slavery one of her top priorities.

But earlier this week, an independent review of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act was clear that much more robust action is needed from government to tackle this scourge.

The Act requires large companies to report on the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains, but according to the review over a third of companies who should be complying are not doing so.

The report follows hot on the heels of a High Court ruling late last year that the government’s decision to slash financial support for modern slavery victims was unlawful.

As a result, the government has been ordered to make back-payments that could exceed £1 million.

And the TUC has also learned that there is no coherent, written, overarching strategy to coordinate all the different strands of work on modern slavery.

Why is this a problem?

The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are over 40 million people living in modern slavery today, including 25 million in forced labour and 15 million in forced marriage.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just an international problem.

In the UK, high-risk sectors for modern slavery include domestic work, agriculture, logistics and services such as nail bars and cleaning, with the number of slaves in the UK almost certainly higher than the 10-13,000 the government estimates.

The government needs to get a grip and start developing a proper strategy to tackle modern slavery in supply chains.

Because it’s simply not right that some big companies are still reaping the benefits of this appalling practice.

What’s in the review?

The Review looked at what improvements are needed to make sure companies take responsibility for tackling modern slavery in their supply chains.

It echoed some of our longstanding criticisms of the Modern Slavery Act – namely that companies should be forced to tackle modern slavery in their supply chains, not just encouraged to do so.

It was also clear that more robust action and stronger legislation is needed, recommending that:

  • The government introduce sanctions for companies that don’t comply with the legislation, including fines and disqualifying directors.
  • The scrapping of a provision in the legislation that permits a company to comply with the legislation by saying “We’ve taken no steps to tackle modern slavery”.

The TUC has repeatedly pointed out that this legal loophole makes a mockery of the legislation.

  • The public sector take greater responsibility for tackling modern slavery.

While not currently within scope of the legislation, the size of the public sector means it could play a bigger role tackling modern slavery. In 2013, for example, around £250 billion was spent on public procurement – 31 per cent of all government spending that year and just over 14 per cent of total Gross Domestic Product. The review recommends that government departments and local authorities publish ‘Modern Slavery Statements’ setting out how they’ve tackled slavery in their supply chains and that they no longer contract with organisations that haven’t complied with the legislation.

What do we want?

We support the review’s recommendations, but we also want the government to work with key stakeholders to develop a coherent and comprehensive written strategy to tackle modern slavery.

This includes amending the existing legislation so that companies are required to tackle modern slavery in their supply chains – not just report on it.

It’s time for ministers to get serious about tackling modern slavery in supply chains by investigating and fining employers where they are not taking meaningful action.

If an employer chooses not to pay its workers the National Minimum Wage, they rightly face investigation and sanction.

Any employer that lets modern slavery fester throughout their supply chains should face the same penalties.

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