What next for the business response to modern slavery in supply chains?

August 2, 2023

It is very easy to feel disconnected from the colossal issue of modern slavery – but the reality is we are all connected through the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the products we buy. 

There are an estimated 27.6 million people in forced labour around the world (ILO). About US$26.1 billion worth of products identified as being at risk of being produced through forced labour is imported to the UK each year (Global Slavery Index). Reports of modern slavery in PPE supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic and state-sponsored forced labour of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people in China – including in the solar industry –  have recently made the headlines.

With increasingly complex supply chains, the risk of forced labour touches businesses that we all deal with everyday – high street giants that we love and trust. But with this risk comes the huge potential for change.  

Companies, their shareholders and investors are becoming increasingly aware of the critical role they need to play in the fight against modern slavery. But while some businesses are at the forefront going above and beyond the current requirements, some aren’t even doing the bare minimum.

That is why Justice and Care, alongside our modern slavery unit partners the Centre for Social Justice, convened a roundtable discussion with Nusrat Ghani MP, Minister of State in the Department for Business and Trade, alongside business leaders, investors and NGOs in July.

Justice and Care and the CSJ host supply chain roundtable

Transparency rules on exploitation within company supply chains were introduced in the Modern Slavery Act  –  yet the discussion at our roundtable highlighted the bleak reality of poor compliance and a lack of effective enforcement. Experts at the event highlighted the need for a level playing field in which non-compliant and unethical businesses are held to account.  

While the UK once led the world in fighting this heinous crime, other countries have followed suit and even gone beyond our Modern Slavery Act framework. Many UK businesses operate globally and will already be familiar with or preparing for the rules in place in other jurisdictions. We need to make sure our laws work in harmony with these global developments and avoid creating additional burdens for our UK businesses. 

With a General Election not too far away, we may have to wait for bigger changes, but there is no reason to just sit back and wait. Action must be taken by the Government to put the UK back at the forefront of tackling modern slavery in supply chains – so too businesses. Top specialists at the roundtable stressed that best practice in tackling forced labour in supply chains begins with an assumption it is present; placing the emphasis on finding, fixing and preventing it — with the greatest attention dedicated to areas with the greatest risk of forced labour.

Our top recommendations for action over the next year and for a future Government are:

  1. Act to enforce and improve compliance with the current rules, reminding non-compliant companies of their responsibilities and seeking a court injunction where a company is persistently failing to report.
  2. Ensure Government procurement is setting the benchmark, starting by introducing regulations to eradicate slavery from NHS supply chains under powers in the Health and Care Act 2022.
  3. Promote best practice through detailed guidance to help companies prevent, identify and remedy modern slavery in their supply chains – both in the UK and abroad. 
  4. Urgently strengthen the provisions of section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act, considering the opportunities to do so in legislation already planned for the next parliamentary session.
  5. Establish a framework for the transparent imposition of import controls to prevent the import of goods thought to be produced by forced labour and encourage companies to remedy the forced labour.
  6. Develop mandatory human rights due diligence legislation with a ‘failure to prevent’ model, ensuring that the rules will work in harmony with rules in other jurisdictions and other due diligence requirements to make it easier for businesses to comply.

Of course, we as consumers can also play our part – choosing to buy from brands that are taking action and putting pressure on those that are not. Only by working together will we be able to beat this evil crime.