Is UK Retail Ignoring the Modern Slavery Act?

  • Written by Laura Houghton
  • Published on 24 October 2017
  • Our Voice

The Modern Slavery Act was introduced to the UK in 2015 with the purpose of tackling modern slavery across global supply chains through increased transparency.

Modern slavery is noted in the Modern Slavery Act guidelines as the offences of “slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour” – a “crime resulting in an abhorrent abuse of human rights”. The legislation makes businesses with a turnover of £36 million or higher responsible for abuses that occur throughout their operations and manufacturing.

 Businesses in the UK are now required to publish an annual statement outlining their intended steps to identify and tackle slavery and human rights abuses taking place throughout their operations. Failure to produce such a statement could result in high court injunctions or fines. The Home Office has announced its expectations for statements and policies to develop over time.

 Ever since the implementation of the Act, critics have argued that it doesn’t go far enough. Although intended actions must be documented, this does not make companies legally responsible for ensuring that their products are slave-free. Also, if a company were to publish a statement declaring that they have no intentions to take action against potential issues in their supply chain, they would be complying with the law without making any positive changes. 

Anti-slavery experts have stated that some of the world’s top brands have failed to disclose the slavery and trafficking risks in their supply chains. A study of 50 brands by corporate accountability watchdog CORE showed that 5 had failed to file a statement, and of those who had, many of the statements were “short on detail and lacked transparency”.

The level of complacency from major companies, particularly those that trumpet their corporate social responsibility, is startling.

Marilyn Croser
Director, CORE

The lack of sufficient modern slavery statements from big brands suggests that compliance with slavery legislation may not be a top priority for large companies, but should it be? Yes, it should and not just for ethical reasons.

Improving standards and transparency has proven to have clear business benefits. A Tuft’s University study found that in a selection of 15,000 garment workers and 2,000 factory managers surveyed, productivity was 22% higher amongst those where supervisors had received Better Work’s Supervisory Skills training. This led to fewer injuries and occurrences of backed-up production lines, as well as lower staff turnover. Higher productivity directly results in higher profits!

Ultimately, whilst the Modern Slavery Act may not bind companies to be legally liable for the treatment and well-being of staff across their supply chains, that doesn’t mean that companies won’t take on this responsibility themselves. When increasing compliance and transparency leads to increased profit, it doesn’t make sense not to.

Sometimes the most ethical choice is also the most profitable.

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