Reporting on modern slavery risks: the union factor
Modern slavery is an international phenomenon and comes in many forms ranging from East European migrants in the UK food industry in debt to trafficking gangs, to Nepalese workers on Middle Eastern construction sites with no access to their ID documents.
The UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 not only sets out stronger criminal sanctions against those who profit from this form of gross exploitation, but also provides the opportunity to scrutinise and hold companies accountable for what they are doing to counter modern slavery. The Transparency in Supply Chains clause in the Act requires any commercial organisation doing business in the UK and with global sales of more than £36 million to make an annual ‘slavery and human trafficking report’ setting out what they do to ‘ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains, and in any part of its own business’.
We have analysed a hundred early modern slavery statements produced ahead of the statutory deadline to see what companies are saying about their modern slavery risks and processes. A short summary would be “could do better”. Most companies are comfortable reiterating their policies (such as Codes or Conduct or support for the ILO Core Labour Standards), but there is little in the way of detailed analysis of their impacts on workers and actual risks of modern slavery that exist. This is in spite of the UK government’s own guidance on how to report which emphasises that, amongst other things, they should talk about:
- “…the parts of its business and supply chains where there is a risk of slavery and human trafficking taking place, and the steps it has taken to assess and manage that risk;
- its effectiveness in ensuring that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in its business or supply chains, measured against such performance indicators as it considers appropriate….”
We shouldn’t be too disappointed or surprised about this lack of detail. All these statements were voluntarily produced, and anyway the guidance will take time to bed in and many companies are at an early stage in thinking about how to undertake risk assessments on modern slavery or indeed on other wider human rights issues.
So we can expect more, but trade unions can help to make these statements more meaningful and transparent in two important ways. First, they can help companies in identifying their risks. Unions and local workers will know about the real situation in workplaces – the agency workers in the UK who are bussed back to sub-standard housing by a gang master or factory cleaners paid less than the minimum wage – so we need to find better ways to share information. Companies putting together modern slavery statements need to be engaging with trade unions to gather this intelligence, and conversely trade unions need to collect relevant information in usable forms and engage openly with companies. This two-way process is of course more effective where there is union representation in the workplace.
This form of ‘collaborative due diligence’ is also likely to be more effective at identifying risks than social auditing which has become the default way of doing ethical supply chain monitoring over the past 20 years and is of limited use for spotting issues like trafficking which are, by their nature, hidden.
Second, trade unions and NGOs should be examining company statements and challenging them to go further where information is bland while supporting those companies that are honest and seek to establish good practice. Many companies will be reticent to make frank assessments about modern slavery for fear of the media backlash, whereas in fact they should be supported for facing up to reality, so long as they have plans for remedying situations and reducing risks to workers.