A modest little bill with much to be modest about: modern slavery
The draft Modern Slavery Bill published on 16 December 2013 is a peculiar beast. As published it takes a criminal justice perspective on contemporary slavery, bringing together the scattered law from across the statute books and increasing sentences for those convicted of using forced labour. Both these are useful, if modest, measures.
But that is about the best that can be said of the draft bill. For a bill that is meant to contribute to increasing prosecution rates of traffickers it fails to make any provision for those who are most crucial to obtaining the convictions of traffickers: their victims.
There is not one single mention in the draft bill of identification and protection of victims and this is a crucial omission. Research in 2013 by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), a coalition of NGOs of which Anti-Slavery International is a part, found that the existing identification mechanism in the UK, the “National Referral Mechanism” (NRM) has a damning taint of discrimination at its core. The ATMG found that referrals to the NRM of people who were citizens of the European Union had a greater than 80% chance of being recognised, while those from outside the EU had less than 20% chance of being accepted by authorities. This is strongly suggestive that what is determining NRM decisions is less the evidence of forced labour and trafficking and much more the question of the person’s migration status.
The bill also includes provision for an “Anti-Slavery Commissioner”, something that Anti-Slavery International has been arguing is essential for many years and which the ATMG has been recommending since its first report in 2010. Unfortunately the main similarity between the role of “commissioner” in the bill and that which is recommended in international law and for which anti-slavery professionals have been calling is merely the name. The role presented in the bill is a subordinate to the Home Secretary who retains the privilege of editing their reports. It is not the independent body that the ATMG has argued is essential, reporting to parliament, with the ability to provide an overview of anti-slavery practice across the totality of government, and hence providing a stimulus towards better co-ordination and best practice. This independent role has been shown to be crucial in anti-slavery efforts in other countries where it has been established.
As trade unionists and other professionals dealing with slavery will be aware it is not simply a criminal justice issue. Slavery is an issue of human rights, labour rights and development also: the UK Department for International Development could be a world leader in slavery eradication if it was to mainstream the issue into its policy and practice and demand of development professionals that they take cognisance of the issue.
Slavery is also a business and trade issue: the supply chains of many British firms extend into, for example, garment factories in southern India that enslave young women and girls to produce cheap clothes for the UK high street , or the fisheries of Thailand that enslave vulnerable workers to keep our supermarkets stocked with prawns. The Department of Business, Innovation and Science (BIS), despite the presence of the Liberal Democrat Vince Cable as Secretary of State, baulks at even introducing compulsory reporting requirements on the supply chains of international business let alone more vigorous measures that would hold UK international business to the standards of leadership on slavery for which Britain was once famous.
The Modern Slavery Bill is currently undergoing scrutiny by a joint committee of the Commons and Lords. At this stage, aside from providing evidence to that committee, all we can do is hope that the principled and rigorous members of that committee influence a draft law that is more fit to purpose than the Home Office’s exceptionally modest effort. Because without that and a fundamental redressing of the injustices of the current system we will find ourselves living in a state whose only boast on contemporary slavery would be that it tries to be tough on the crime, and tough on the victims of the crime.