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December 16 2020

What the UK legal industry should know about Modern Slavery

Industry Insights

James Bosson

James Bosson

A sad woman stands in a field behind barbed wire

Last week we were once again excited to take part in the monthly Virtual GC event in collaboration with LexisNexis and Radius Law. This month’s event revolved around the challenging but important theme of modern slavery.

The talk prompted a lot of difficult considerations and gave everyone present a lot to think about in terms of the prevalence of modern slavery and what accountability we can take to eliminate it wherever possible. The event’s speakers were Esther Swaffield and Paul Newton of the International Justice Mission, alongside Iain Larkins of Radius Law and James Harper of LexisNexis.

There was a lot of raw and challenging information in the call, so we’ve broken the post down into some digestible chunks. It is worth forewarning that some of the information in this post is difficult to read – but it’s an important conversation that needs to be had.

Slavery is a bigger problem than it has ever been

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, there are more than 40.3 million people trapped in slavery globally. This figure is higher than it was at the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In order to properly engage with the shockingly large scale of modern slavery, it’s important that we fully contextualise it.

The most common form of slavery is forced labour. This is where people are trapped in coercive and frequently violently enforced cycles of physical work in places such as factories, farms, and fishing boats. However, this is not the whole picture. Beneath the more clear-cut definition of slavery as forced physical labour lie other forms of slavery that are much harder to detect. This can include domestic servitude in forced marriages, teenagers trapped in black-market drug and prostitution rings, and child sexual exploitation over the internet.

Whilst it might be easy to imagine slavery as a problem exclusive to countries far away from ours, this is tragically not reflective of reality. Modern slavery is much closer to home than we would like to think. The UK Government’s 2020 UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery estimates that there could be well over 100,000 modern slaves in the UK alone – but the true figure is likely to be much higher. Moreover, according to the Ethical Trade Initiative, 71% of UK businesses report a “strong likelihood” of slavery in their supply chains – but again the true figure is likely to be much higher. Modern slavery is complex, difficult to detect, and all too pervasive in our society.

The state of modern slavery in the UK

As already discussed, slavery is a prevalent in the modern age – but so too are our means to respond to it. Improvements in technology have made modern slavery easier to track, and in turn easier for governments to respond to. As of 2020, more countries than ever before are taking steps to criminalise the practice of slavery and human trafficking – but there is still significant work to be done.

Many G20 countries have now passed significant anti-slavery legislation, and the UK has been amongst the most high-profile to do so. In 2015, the UK Government passed the Modern Slavery Act (MSA). Amongst other things, the act introduced a legal requirement that UK businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million must publish an annual modern slavery statement. The statement must lay out the steps that the organisation has taken that year to combat modern slavery and remove it from its supply chain. Since the UK introduced the MSA, several other G20 countries, including Australia, have since used it as framework to produce comparable legislation.

It should go without saying, but the MSA and these modern slavery statements are important. Big businesses naturally rank amongst the highest importers in the country, so encouraging them to openly scrutinise their supply chains and work to reduce their interactions with modern slavery hopefully produces positive ramifications internationally. Despite this, however, the MSA has been criticised for “lacking teeth”, and merely encouraging businesses to identify slavery as opposed to positively combat it. Whilst we now have a clearer understanding of just how widespread modern slavery is, eliminating it is a different battle altogether.

What you can do about modern slavery

Modern slavery remains a challenge that will require all of us to play our part to overcome. The most immediate thing you, reading this, can do right now is raise the issue in your company if it hasn’t already been discussed. The MSA marks an important step in the right direction, but more business accountability is central to the eradication of slavery. You can help change that.

There are a number of pressing and important issues, such as climate change and diversity within business, that are currently being afforded a lot of crucial time in the spotlight. This has been brought about by a mixture of both external pressure, and internal leadership and advocacy. The same needs to happen with modern slavery, and people in positions of authority within businesses can help raise awareness and encourage an assessment of slavery in employers’ supply chains. At present, only 35% of UK businesses have assessed their suppliers for slavery risks. This needs to change.

Taking the time to communicate to colleagues the importance of tackling modern slavery goes a long way. Once the conversation has started, it’s easier to understand the risks and implement a KPI-monitored plan to minimise those risks. Appoint someone to take the lead on driving change and ensure that staff are trained and resourced to easily report slavery risks wherever they occur. Remember, slavery is more stoppable now than it has ever been. Understand the risks, assess your supply chains, and work to reduce those risks.

This post is a difficult one, but it’s an important conversation that needs to be had. Slavery has no place in the modern age and we can all do our part to stop it. There has been as many as 86% of reductions in slavery in the countries where the International Justice Movement has worked. With more awareness, business advocacy, and accountability, we can hopefully see a 100% reduction in slavery some day soon.

Additional resources:

  • International Justice Mission Website – The IJM is the world’s largest anti-slavery organisation, and the work it does is immeasurably important. Their website has links where you can donate directly, as well as resources to learn more.
  • Modern Slavery e-learning by Skillcast – This collection of articles and blog posts covers a range of important issues related to modern slavery. From a guide on how to write a modern slavery statement, to how to spot modern slavery in your supply chain, it comes thoroughly recommended.
  • LexisNexis Interactive Rule of Law tool – Victims of slavery have been denied access to the rule of law and robbed of their fundamental human rights accordingly. This interactive tool can be directly related to the fight against modern slavery. Where the rule of law is not upheld, slavery continues to grow.