Modern slavery is the exploitation of a person for a personal gain. Victims become trapped and feel that they have no way of freeing themselves.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the “Act”) aims to prevent slavery and human trafficking by UK businesses requiring them to publish a modern slavery statement on their website. The only sanction for failure to comply is being presented with a court order by the Secretary of State requiring them to publish a modern slavery statement. The Act applies to businesses that:
are based in the UK or based outside the UK but carry on business within it; and
have a turnover of £36 million.
The Act does not go as far as imposing criminal sanctions and the government has consulted on proposals to increase powers and implement tougher enforcement powers. In the next section we summarise shocking reports into the conditions of workers based in the UK and in Germany despite being a country with some of the toughest laws and regulations on workers rights.
Boohoo textile workers Workers in textile factories based in Leicester hired by the fashion brand Boohoo, reported being forced to work in cramped buildings with no personal protective equipment or social distancing measures and for around £3.50 per hour which is below national minimum wage.
Even whilst Leicester was under the highest level of restrictions across the UK during the first UK lockdown, many of the workers reported that they were required to go into work and to take public transport. Workers also claimed they had felt they had no choice for fear of losing their jobs.
Boohoo's working conditions was scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights who led an investigation into the reports. Retailers such as ASOS who purchase clothes produced in these factories have been calling on the government for further investigations and for legislation to be strengthened to prevent unethical working practices. Their concern being also people potentially losing trust in their brand as news of such incidents continues to be circulated in the media.
The UK’s government’s proposals to strengthen the Act The UK government launched a consultation into Transparency in Supply Chains and has responded to the consultation where it committed to amending section 54(5) of the Act making the publication of the modern slavery statement mandatory. Also significant will be the introduction of a single reporting deadline, a Government run reporting service and single enforcement body.
In June 2021 the Modern Slavery (Amendment Bill) was introduced to the House of Lords which proposes amendments to the Act:
to make it a criminal offence to supply a false modern slavery and human trafficking statement;
to make it a criminal offence for companies to continue to use supply chains which fail to demonstrate minimum standards of transparency; and
to improve standards of transparency in supply chains in relation to modern slavery and human trafficking.
The only risk to businesses currently under the Act is the reputational damage for failing to publish a modern slavery statement and does not goes far enough in protecting workers from being victims of abuse and exploitation.
The proposals will require legislative changes to be made which we can expect anytime from now followed by guidance on compliance with the Act.