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  • Marijus Zabiela

How to tackle modern slavery - The UK's approach

Modern slavery takes many forms and affects people of various ages and nationalities. The independent anti-slavery commissioner recently identified the United Kingdom as both a country of destination, taking in thousands of victims, and a source country, since the number of British victims is gradually increasing. Official figures have revealed that in a year, the number of potential modern slavery victims in the UK has risen by 52%, a record high. The Home Office has responded that a huge increase in the potential number of victims resulted from ‘better training for first responders’ and because of the improved way ‘this abuse is tackled’, which ‘led to more referrals to potential victims.’

The three most common nationalities of potential victims of modern slavery referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the official system through which victims of modern slavery are identified and provided support, were British, Albanian and Vietnamese. In addition, the most common type of exploitation for both adults and minors was labour exploitation. Half of them were in debt bondage, whereas around a third were in sexual exploitation.

The NRM recorded 10,627 potential victims in 2019 alone. It has risen from 6,986 in 2018. Out of 10,627 cases, officials concluded that 8,429 were victims of modern slavery, allowing them to be provided with at least 45 days of specialist support and at some cases even accommodation. Nevertheless, all 8,249 who were found to have ‘reasonable grounds’ to be victims of modern slavery are still waiting for a conclusive decision. The wait, because of the high demand, might take 2-3 years, which is extremely worrying for the victim, whose life is put ‘on hold’. The Home Office says that a new Victim Care Contract is currently being procured.

Unfortunately, the actual number of victims of modern slavery could be much higher, since not everyone is considered to have ‘reasonable grounds’, whereas others are afraid to speak out or do not consider themselves to be included. Moreover, there still are some cases where people are turned away from the police or not believed, at times even treated as criminals. Strict visa rules also prevent victims from leaving their abusive employer. Sara Thornton, the UK’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner, in her interview to the Independent called for ‘radical reform’ of the NRM, because the system was unable to keep up with the growing number of referrals. So what is the government actually doing towards the elimination of modern slavery?

Thousands of businesses are currently required to publish annual modern slavery statements under the Modern Slavery Act of 2015. Those who fail to do so risk being omitted from public procurements, the Home Office will undertake a compliance audit and ‘may name and shame companies’. Luckily, the UK government decided to further improve by assessing its £50bn annual spending by collaborating with a range of organisations in search for sustainable solutions. This resulted in UK becoming the first country to publish a modern slavery statement, which sets out how the government is tackling the crime in its own supply chains - a decision, which hopefully will have a long-lasting positive impact. The Prime Minister himself condemned crimes of ‘human misery’, emphasizing that government should not be ‘lining their pockets with taxpayers’ money.’ A nice exemplary gesture for businesses and other countries.

The statement serves as an emphasis on the government’s position after its publication of guidance in September 2019 on how all central ministerial government departments should identify and mitigate modern slavery risks. It also leaves some freedom for ministerial departments to add their own policies or requirements for suppliers. The guidance was developed by the Cabinet Office with the help of a range of government, business, public sector and civil society stakeholders. So far, over 250 commercial staff have been trained on ‘how to carry out modern slavery risk assessments so they can put this practice in their departments’. The guidance applies to all ministerial and non-ministerial government departments, whereas other public bodies are also encouraged to employ the guidance.

According to the new guidance, ministerial departments, among many other requirements, must publish data demonstrating compliance with the obligation. They also have to appoint anti-slavery advocates. As well as that, government suppliers for ‘contracts in excess of £5m a year’ must publish their payment data on the official government website. Furthermore, the government launched a ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ behaviour change campaign in 2019, to reduce labour exploitation, focusing on three regions in England (West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire). Individual ministerial departments should begin publishing their statements in 2021.

In such a decision, the UK does not stand alone. It launched ‘Principles to Combat Human Trafficking in Supply Chains’ in partnership with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has committed £200m in Overseas Development Assistance to combat modern slavery. This also includes tackling it in global supply chains, improving workers’ rights as far as in Mauritius and Malaysia.

It is a great step forward, but nevertheless, more remains to be done. There still is a huge need for governments to find dedicated investigators to uncover murky supply chains, a need for a developed scheme for the industries to invest in the communities, whose low-cost labour they use to make their products, and also their acceptance of slightly lower profits. And even then, there will be a need for a consumer to understand why one should pay slightly more.

Image - Unsplash

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