Human rights and trade | Opinion

Is the Modern Slavery Act being sold short?

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More convictions may follow

High-profile convictions aside, is there a lack of drive to enforce the UK’s flagship slavery legislation effectively?

The behaviour of the Markowski brothers – who were sentenced recently to six years in prison for trafficking young men from Poland to the UK to work in a Sports Direct warehouse – has been described by union bosses as “like something out of a Dickens novel”.

Erwin and Krystian lured vulnerable Poles to the high street retailer’s Shirebrook warehouse where they were paid below the legal minimum and faced full body searches every morning before coming into work.

So, on the face of it, the conviction is evidence that the UK’s Modern Slavery Act – which came into force in March 2015 to tackle forced labour and poor recruitment practices – is working.

Questions remain

However, despite ongoing spotlighting of UK businesses like Sports Direct – driven by good old-fashioned investigative journalism – these early convictions aren’t the whole picture. There remain questions on the effectiveness of the legislation and the way it is being used to tackle the more serious instances of human rights abuses, both in the UK and around the world, particularly in the apparel sector.

Over the past few years, the act has had generally a warm reception from human rights campaigners; for the first time, the issue of worker wellbeing has reached the boardroom.

More than 12,000 boards of directors at companies turning over more than £36m must now sign-off on modern slavery statements, proving they are doing meaningful due diligence to find risks and do something about eradicating forced labour and trafficking from their own operations and supply chains.

But, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), the act is falling short, particularly when it comes to how companies report.

Commitment deficit?

BHRRC says that if the act is to be effective in changing corporate behaviour, statements must be scrutinised by civil society, investors, and consumers to reward leaders and expose laggards, identify areas of weakness across the board, and ultimately demand better action.

The centre’s analysis of the first FTSE 100 companies to report under the act called for improvements across the board, with only Marks & Spencer and SABMiller singled out for producing detailed statements that disclosed “robust measures”.

Another issue is the UK government’s commitment to enforcing the act in the broadest sense. says Michael Spenley, a consultant specialising in modern slavery statements and ethical sourcing, says: “The UK could miss out on a huge opportunity if measures to enforce the act are not adequately resourced. This is particularly true with regards to the scrutiny of steps taken by UK companies with supply chains that involve countries where worker exploitation is a major risk. Self-assessment and monitoring, whilst very valuable, only goes so far – and there is only so much the NGOs can do.”

But, early days

It is, of course, still early to be making a full assessment as to the effectiveness of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, with the first round of reporting having only just been carried out. But there is a definite direction of travel, some going beyond the UK act’s scope.

In the US, the landscape has tightened with, in 2016, the closing of a loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act barring goods made by forced or indentured labour. This follows up on earlier legislation in California and tightened rules on federal spending. However, there is some uncertainty over whether the new Trump administration will turn away from corporate regulation of any sort.

Danielle McMullan, a researcher at the BHRRC, sees a clear trend towards not only further mandatory reporting – with France and Switzerland likely to be the next countries to follow the US and UK – but also, crucially, towards mandatory standards of behaviour.

McMullan argues: “Companies need to be encouraged to be as open and transparent as possible. They should be looking to future proof themselves by taking steps now on due diligence.”

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