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Fighting modern-day slavery in the waste sector

This article originally featured in MRW Magazine. 

It may be 2019 but slavery in the UK is prevalent. Government estimates indicate that currently tens of thousands of people are in modern slavery in the UK. Most people are trafficked from overseas, but there is also a significant number of British nationals in slavery.

There is a concern that modern slavery may increase post-Brexit, as a predicted shortage of EU workers and tougher restrictions on migration may make it more profitable for traffickers to bring people into the UK and sell them into modern slavery to take on low-paid and low-skilled roles. The waste and energy sectors, as well as construction and manufacturing are the industries mostly likely to be affected by this issue.

What is modern slavery? 

It is exploitative labour that places one person in the control of another. There is a spectrum of exploitation and sometimes it is hard to establish a clear line to define what constitutes slavery. However, if a person is forced to carry out work for which they did not offer themselves voluntarily, and they are not free to leave, it is slavery.

Typically, a person coming from a situation of poverty and lack of opportunity gets an offer of an apparently good job in the UK. Often the victim has to take out a loan to pay for the recruitment fees and for the journey. When the person arrives in the UK, the job and conditions they were promised are completely different. Their passport is taken away, and they’re told they need to pay off the debt before they can leave. Violence or threats are common practice, both against the victim as well as their family back home.

Obligations as a business

Modern slavery and people trafficking are criminal offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA 2015). While criminal liability for slavery offences will usually be confined to those directly engaging in slavery, commercial liabilities and reputational damage can quickly spread up the supply chain. The Act requires commercial organisations with an annual turnover exceeding £36m, to produce an annual transparency statement detailing the steps taken during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking isn’t taking place in its own business or in its supply chains.

This statement, which must be published on the organisation’s website, should include information about the business’ structure, policies, due diligence, assessment and management of risk, training, and effectiveness in ensuring its supply chain is free from modern slavery and human trafficking.

What can organisations do

In addition to the very clear ethical reasons for doing so, businesses of all sizes should take responsibility for tackling modern slavery to protect the company and its reputation. Basic practical steps that businesses can take to help eradicate this issue, include:

  • Voluntarily putting in place a Modern Slavery Statement if you’re not legally required to have one;
  • Carrying out due diligence to identify and assess risks in relation to slavery and human trafficking. These risks may be greater in global supply chains and so organisations should consider what regions they do business in and whether they present a particular risk;
  • Carrying out due diligence checks when appointing labour providers and only engaging providers with an identifiable legitimate business entity;
  • Establishing who is responsible for managing relationships between contractors/suppliers. Processes should be in place for how frequently these relationships are reviewed, and what procedure is followed if the business discovers that a supplier is involved in slavery or human trafficking, including procedures for internal investigations and crisis management;
  • Reviewing existing workplace policies (e.g. CSR policy) to ensure modern slavery is referenced and making it clear in the policies that exploitation of workers is not tolerated;
  • Training employees on what modern slavery is and how to spot the signs and, where necessary, training should be translated into other languages. A clear audit trail of training being delivered should be kept centrally; and
  • Establishing policies and procedures for suppliers which require them to commit to eradicating modern slavery in their business or their supply chain. Organisations may wish to enhance their contracts with suppliers to specify the steps that should be taken to prevent slavery in the supply chain.

Modern slavery is not only an issue for large companies with global supply chains. All businesses should be aware of this issue and take steps to ensure that personnel are recruited and treated fairly and have access to fair working conditions.

Kirsty Cooke is a Senior Associate in Ashfords’ Employment and Immigration Team. Kirsty advises on a range of employment issues, including conducting disciplinary and grievance processes, restructuring and redundancy, and the defence of employment tribunal litigation. Kirsty also advises on business immigration issues, including migrant workers’ right to work in the UK. Ashfords’ Employment and Business Risk Teams can advise on all aspects of anti-slavery legislation, supply chain and contractual issues, preventative procedures and incident management.

For any more information please contact Kirsty Cooke on: k.cooke@ashfords.co.uk.

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