The ongoing legal case relating to the largest European human trafficking network confronts us with the depressing reality that four years on from the Modern Slavery Act 2015, forced labour is still very much an issue in the UK.
Over 400 victims, mostly vulnerable and homeless people from Poland, were lured to the UK with promises of good money upon arrival. They found themselves packing spring onions on farms in Worcestershire, with their captors pocketing their minimum wage pay and benefits.
The operation supplied some of the biggest retailers in the UK, with most claiming they had no idea the produce they were being supplied with was produced by slave labour, and some saying they only became aware of it after being contacted by the media.
But time really has run out on ignorance as defence. ETI’s study with the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability revealed that 71 per cent of companies already believed in 2015 that there was a likelihood of modern slavery occurring in their supply chains. And we know the risks of modern slavery tend to be highest in the lower tiers of supply chains – in the warehouses, farms and poultry factories where the victims were put to work, and where some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded workers are to be found.
It should not still be happening. Suppliers are supposed to receive training supported by the brands they are supplying. So either this wasn’t happening, or no-one was checking that the training was being put into practice.
The Worcestershire case reveals the lack of effective due diligence by companies on modern slavery, and the failure of a compliance approach that relies solely on announced audits. It also, and perhaps most worryingly, suggests that there is still an industry-wide, collective shrug of acceptance that this will continue to happen.
ETI has published an Evaluation Framework to support companies in ensuring their Modern Slavery statements are fit for purpose, and offers training on how to be compliant with the Act. We also fought hard with our members and allies to include and strengthen the Transparency in Supply Chains clause in the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015.
It’s unacceptable that four years on, and with freely available tools and guidance available to support companies in becoming compliant, the scourge of forced labour is still very much with us.