Lords debate Modern Slavery Bill
Whilst we very much welcome the Modern Slavery Bill as an important tool in combating trafficking and forced labour, it could be improved. Certainly, the argument that it should contain the provision for reinstating the Overseas Domestic Visa is compelling. Tying Overseas Domestic Workers to a single employer can condemn vulnerable workers to continuing in an abusive relationship. Evidence that such abuse is all to common is cited in my blog back in March 2012. Overseas Domestic Workers must once more be free to change employers and an amendment to the Bill, to this effect, would be most welcome.
The Government has given assurances that time to pass the Bill will be found before Parliament is prorogued at the end of March. Nevertheless, time is short in ensuring that this legislation gets on the statute books. That said, either now or at some future date there is still work to be done on this area of law.
Certainly some amendments have and will require a further major shift in government thinking. When the call to include a section on supply chains was raised, the Government’s instinctive reaction was negative; they saw it as more red tape restricting businesses and adding to their costs.
However, large retailers through bodies like the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), of which the TUC is a member, made it clear that they wanted statutory intervention. They wanted the law to require large companies to clearly state what they were doing to ensure there was no forced labour within their supply chains and where it was found how they eliminated it. That such information should be made publicly available for all, including trade unions, to inspect and question. The ETI argued that such requirements need to be mandatory because good companies voluntarily carried out such procedures. The law was needed to ensure that the less scrupulous companies also were required to tackle these issues. In the face of such arguments the Government has been persuaded to move, but only to a degree. At this stage they are still recoiling from imposing penalties on those companies who do not comply.
Failure to comply could take one of two forms:
- Companies simply do not carry out any investigation of their supply chain and therefore have nothing to report
- Where companies do not show due diligence but it is demonstrated that they are benefiting from forced labour in their supply chain, outside the UK, it will not be possible to prosecute them for this failure in our courts
To have statutory provisions which are not backed up by penalties for those who breach them is a clear nonsense. This issue must be revisited.
As well as many outstanding issues on whom and what should be reported there is also the issue of where this information should be made available. The TUC supports the view that while it might be on individual company websites, all of these reports should also be held on a single website. Holding this information centrally would certainly aid comparison. It would however also get around the issue of which companies need to report! It’s clear that that these requirements will not be imposed on all companies. The Government intends to consult further after the Bill has been enacted, on such issues, as to who these requirements will apply. It however seems that they will apply to companies who are of a certain size as defined by turnover. A central searchable website, which contains details of companies covered by these requirements and the reports that they have submitted, would save interested parties a lot of time and effort.
Let us hope that even at this late hour the Lords tackle some of these and other deficiencies in the Bill.