The challenge of modern slavery.
What would you do if later today you were to discover Health and Safety rules were being flouted on a regular basis inside your company?
Or if you became aware of a culture of bullying and harassment towards colleagues at your organisation?
What would your response be if you witnessed someone being discriminated against because of their ethnicity, religion or gender?
And you’d do so, not simply because all three of those things are illegal and the law demands it, but because they are morally reprehensible and you have a duty not to look the other way.
So, why do so many people (and organisations) turn a blind eye to modern slavery and forced labour?
I suspect it’s a combination of things; maybe they’re in denial about it happening on their doorstep, are afraid to confront it for fear of their business being caught up in an investigation or, more damningly, they are aware but choose to say nothing because it’s commercially convenient.
Whatever the reason, the simple fact is they are all excuses; and they are excuses that won’t wash in the eyes of the law any longer.
Modern slavery is abhorrent; it is described by the Prime Minister as ‘the greatest human rights issue of our time.’ And it is happening right now in businesses up and down the country.
Thousands of people are being forced to work for little or no pay, often in appalling conditions and with the threat of violence hanging over them if they step out of line.
Much of it is controlled by organised crime gangs who have links to drug smuggling, guns and violence. They know full well the enormous profits that can be made from using people as a commodity.
That’s precisely why these gangs have moved into human trafficking, modern slavery and labour exploitation; it’s lucrative and the risks are low.
Thankfully, that’s beginning to change. The criminal justice system is rising to the challenge of the threat posed by modern slavery and is fighting back.
It is estimated that there are between 10,000-13,000 slaves in the UK but there may be many more. Slavery and labour exploitation has infiltrated legitimate supply chains from retail, manufacturing, care homes and the hotel and hospitality industry.
And yes, it’s also happening right now within the retail sector.
How do we know? Well, my organisation - the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) - has carried out risk analysis of labour exploitation across the UK. And our research indicates that the industry has been infiltrated by slavers and exploiters.
The GLAA’s job is to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation. We have specialist officers with police-style powers of arrest to investigate forced labour and human trafficking. We also look into other labour market offences– such as failure to pay National Minimum Wage (NMW) and breaches of the Employment Agency Act.
We are already starting to have an impact on disrupting and dismantling modern slavery networks that have established themselves within the UK.
But the key to eradicating slavery and forced labour isn’t enforcement – it’s working together with legitimate businesses to raise awareness of it.
Last year some of the biggest names in construction signed up to a protocol with the GLAA committing themselves to playing their part in tackling labour exploitation.
The document commits signatories to work in partnership to protect vulnerable and exploited workers, agree to the sharing of information to help stop or prevent exploitation and pledge to raise awareness of slavery through supply chains.
This is a significant step because it shows the construction sector has taken a mature approach in recognising exploitation does occur within the industry and it is taking proactive steps to tackle it.
In time, the Modern Slavery Act will become as familiar, and important, to employers as both the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Equality Act in ensuring their businesses fully comply with the law and the welfare of employees is looked after.
The only way we will rid ourselves of this repugnant practice is for it to become socially and morally unacceptable.
And that’s where you come in.
Whether you’re the owner of a small firm, a director at one of the UK’s biggest property companies, a centre manager, or service provider, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to prevent people from being forced to work.
Unsure what to look for? We have produced specific guidance that can help you spot the signs of labour exploitation and a training film for employers.
You can learn more visiting gla.gov.uk or call us free and confidentially on +44 (0)800 432 0804 to report any suspicions or knowledge about labour exploitation.
Simple questions can act as a deterrent such as:
- How are you?
- What did you do last night?
- Is everything in the UK what you expected?