Five ways to clamp down on modern slavery

TUC’s Tim Sharp

By Tim Sharp – Trades Union Congress

Five years after companies became subject to new modern slavery laws, workers still experience extreme exploitation in many parts of the UK economy. The government should use the upcoming Employment Bill to make progress towards abolishing modern slavery in the UK for good.

Last week marksed the fifth anniversary of the introduction of mandatory modern slavery statements for UK employers. These require big companies to confirm the steps they have taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in the business (or in any supply chain). But loopholes in the legislation mean that employers can simply declare that no steps have been taken.

And there is no duty on employers to¬†put in place¬†to tackle the risks they¬†do¬†identify.¬†Modern slavery¬†is an international problem.¬†But it‚Äôs also a UK problem.¬†International Labour Organisation‚ÄĮ¬†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.

In¬†Britain, 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 ‚ÄĮ10-13,000 the government estimates.¬†The coronavirus outbreak shone a spotlight on practices in the Leicester textile trade where¬†a local MP has¬†claimed¬†10,000 people are working in conditions of slavery.

Meanwhile, trade unions,¬†journalists¬†and¬†academics¬†have long warned of¬†employment rights abuses in the city.¬†And a recent independent inquiry into online retailer Boohoo, which is the dominant customer for the city‚Äôs¬†garment¬†factories,¬†found¬†‚Äúendemic problems‚ÄĚ including¬†potentially life-threatening fire risks and failure to pay the minimum wage.¬†Trade¬†unions are the way forward¬†The TUC has been¬†working¬†with¬†Leicester city council to persuade clothing brands to only source from factories that allow access to trade unions to¬†ensure good health and safety and employment practices are being undertaken.

This would¬†ensure workers are well-treated and that reputable clothing brands feel¬†comfortable sourcing supplies from the city.¬†But there also needs to be an overhaul of existing laws to move¬†modern slavery reporting¬†from¬†box-ticking to¬†an obligation for¬†companies¬†to take serious action¬†on slavery in their supply chains or face enforcement action and public¬†condemnation.¬†Last year,¬†an independent review of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act‚ÄĮmade¬†clear that much more robust action is needed from government to tackle this scourge.

The TUC believes that government and clothing retailers need to get a grip of this problem. We propose:

  • Sanctions¬†for companies that¬†don‚Äôt¬†comply with¬†modern slavery¬†laws, including fines and disqualifying¬†of¬†directors.
  • Reform of the Modern Slavery¬†Act,¬†to force companies to¬†publish a plan outlining how they‚Äôll tackle modern slavery risks in their supply chains.
  • Joint and several liability¬†so that workers can enforce their rights against any company in a supply chain.
  • The extension of licensing by the Gangmasters¬†and Labour Abuse Authority to textile factories.
  • Access to workplaces for trade unions¬†to check that health and safety and employment rules are being adhered to and represent members.

Some of these measures, such as licensing, would require secondary legislation. Others, such as trade union access, could be achieved through an agreement by the major clothing brands that they’ll only source from factories that provide trade union representatives with unhindered access.

However, we also believe that trade union access to discuss the benefits of membership should be enshrined in law. The forthcoming Employment Bill is a fantastic opportunity for the government to take serious steps towards abolishing modern slavery in the UK for good.

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