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Modern slavery – “walking the walk”

Posted: 26/10/2017

The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed more than 200 hundred years ago. Indeed, slavery is banned internationally by Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet on any given day in 2016, the latest International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistics indicate that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery. 25 million of which were victims of forced labour.

Despite being adopted by an overwhelming majority at the International Labour Conference in 2014, to date only 20 countries including the UK, have adopted into national law the ILO’s forced labour protocol. The protocol requires ratifying countries to take measures to prevent forced labour, protect victims and ensure their access to remedies and compensation. The poor level of ratification is disappointing when you consider the subject matter, the extensive social dialogue and engagement, the goodwill created in 2014 by the adoption of the protocol, and the fact that most enslaved individuals work in well-established industries such as agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, mining, and utilities. Regretfully, too many governments are still paying lip service to taking positive national action to eradicate modern slavery.

Against this context, the UK’s annual Anti-Slavery Day, which took place on 18 October 2017, was especially timely. The day raised awareness nationally of the dangers and consequences of modern-day slavery and human trafficking. It was particularly pertinent this year given that the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) has recently confirmed that modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is "far more prevalent than previously thought." According to the NCA, previous estimates of 10,000-13,000 victims in the UK are just the "tip of the iceberg". The NCA’s view is validated by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). HMIC has reported this month that UK police forces are still failing to recognise the crimes of modern slavery, leading to victims being left unprotected or even arrested. HMIC has identified “inconsistent and ineffective” identification of victims and that police forces are not investigating abuses quickly enough.

Nevertheless, a positive trend is emerging that more and more companies are “walking the walk” and complying with the requirements included in the UK’s Modern Slavery Act. This is happening predominantly because UK companies have to publish a modern slavery statement to meet the act’s criteria for legal compliance. Others are finding that their clients/customers are obliging them to produce a statement voluntarily, often as a result of increasing focus on ethical employment practices in procurement. Businesses should note, however, that on 4 October the Government updated its guidance on Transparency in Supply Chains. In so doing, Home Secretary Amber Rudd reiterated that tackling modern slavery remains a top priority for the UK Government, so businesses will have to continue to play their part in respecting human rights in all  business dealings. Compliance with section 54 of the Act is an important part of demonstrating respect for human rights.

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