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Why modern slavery could be on the rise and what employers can do to combat it

For so many the pandemic has turned our lives upside down, affecting so many areas of our life – from the way we work, the way we travel, the ability to see our friends and family and the mental and emotional affects it continues to have on us. Perhaps one outcome of the pandemic that may not be so apparent to us is the opportunity it has created for modern forms of slavery to thrive.

Slavery seems like something that should be confined to the history books, however it is estimated that 40 million people are trapped by forms of modern slavery, which sees the illegal exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain. Because of its hidden nature, there is currently no conclusive source of data on how many of those people entrapped by slavery are in the UK, however the Office for National Statistics has reported:

  • the Modern Slavery Helpline received a 68% increase in calls and submissions in the year ending December 2018, compared with the previous year;
  • there were 5,144 modern slavery offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019, an increase of 51% from the previous year;
  • the number of potential victims referred through the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM) increased by 36% to 6,985 in the year ending December 2018.

Modern slavery covers a wide range of abuse and exploitation including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced labour, criminal exploitation and human trafficking. Victims of modern slavery can be any age, gender, nationality and ethnicity. People end up trapped in modern slavery because they are vulnerable to being tricked, trapped and exploited, often as a result of poverty and exclusion. They may feel unable to leave or report the crime through fear or intimidation. They may not even recognise themselves as a victim.

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly caused major economic and social disruption. A study carried out by Dow Jones found that this disruption has created the perfect breeding ground for modern slavery to thrive in the corporate supply chain. The pandemic has seen supply chains disrupted – with many facing cancelled orders and factory shut downs – meaning a large number of workers have lost their jobs and been forced to look for opportunities in informal economies, which are typically rife with exploitation. Rapid changes in labour supply and demand might have also tempted some businesses to use it as an excuse to exploit vulnerable workers or force them to work through the pandemic.

Responses to Covid-19 may have also served to divert resources away from social issues such as modern slavery. This could be in a variety of ways, with NHS staff and mental health-care workers stretched to capacity, less resources being allocated to charitable organisations operating in this area, business leaders having had to focus all of their attention on surviving the pandemic, law enforcement and local government having their resources diverted, and the media’s attention firmly trained on the pandemic, meaning that the issue of modern slavery was simply not in the spotlight.

The Dow Jones study concluded that the effects of the pandemic on modern slavery has left companies more exposed to the risk of modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Act 2015, which aims to prevent labour exploitation and to increase the transparency of labour practises and supply chains within organisations, has now been in place for over six years now. It was described as ground breaking legislation and it consolidated existing slavery and trafficking offences, as well as introducing new measures to tackle their existence in the UK’s workplace. Not only should those companies falling within its ambit ensure that they are complying with their obligations, employers have a pivotal role to play in the fight against modern slavery. Here is a reminder of what steps any business should consider taking to ensure that they are committed to tackling slavery:

  • Boost awareness – as we have seen, modern forms of slavery don’t necessarily reflect traditional views of who might be affected by this issue. In fact, the ONS reports that almost a quarter (23%) of the 6,985 potential victims referred through the NRM in the year ending December 2018 were UK nationals;
  • Know your supply chain – although you might be certain that your business is clear of exploitative practices, it’s harder to say the same about every link in your supply chain or through your involvement with business partners. It’s key to have an honest and transparent view of your supply chains, and know where the vulnerabilities may lie;
  • Ensure you have robust recruitment practices – in a fast paced environment it’s easy to let recruitment checks fall by the way side, with the importance placed on getting workers started in work rather than taking the time to carry out proper checks. However, these checks are vital in tackling hidden labour exploitation;
  • Ensure your compliance with your Modern Slavery Act 2015 obligations – larger organisations will be required to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement, but smaller organisations can also choose to produce a statement too if they wish.
  • Review your policies – perhaps you put certain policies, covering perhaps ethical trading, in place when the Modern Slavery Act came into force in 2015. Perhaps those policies could now be revisited and refreshed to ensure that they remain up to date and meaningful.

Modern slavery is a complex landscape, but one in which all employers can play a vital role in the fight to eradicate exploitation. If you need help navigating your compliance obligations, or simply want to know what your business can do to play its part, please don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation or send us an email at legal@lexleyton.co.uk

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