Phil Bloomer of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre hopes that the new prime minister will restore UK leadership with more robust legislation
In his first speech to parliament as the new UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson paid tribute to his predecessor Theresa May’s efforts in “fighting modern slavery”. But what are the prospects for Johnson’s government to continue tackling this global blight?
May’s flagship achievement, the Modern Slavery Act (2015), was a landmark piece of legislation and the first of its kind. It requires companies with a £36m turnover to publish statements on what they are doing to identify and prevent modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. But in the years since it was introduced, the gaps in this legislation have become increasingly clear – and new tougher laws across Europe and in Australia mean the UK could fall behind.
The main problem with the current law is how little it demands of companies, and its lack of teeth in enforcing even this modest requirement. Research by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has found that 73 of the FTSE 100 companies are failing to properly disclose their anti-slavery efforts, and of the 7,410 company statements we have collected on our Modern Slavery Registry so far, only 22% meet even the minimum requirements.
By contrast, Australia’s Modern Slavery Act (2018) is stronger, mandating which specific areas companies should report under, and holding statements in a central registry.
However, there’s a growing recognition that merely requiring transparency from companies is not enough. What is needed is a mandatory requirement to actively identify and prevent human rights risk, including modern slavery, throughout a company’s operations and supply chain, with proper sanctions for failure to comply. This “big stick” could be made more powerful with a “big carrot”, where only compliant companies gain access to public procurement markets, worth £200bn in the UK alone.
Already the drive for this preventive approach, known as mandatory human rights due diligence, is gaining momentum, with supporters at the European Union level. France introduced a Duty of Vigilance Law in 2017 which requires companies to carry out due diligence on their human rights risks, and take steps to mitigate any found. In May this year the Netherlands adopted the Child Labour Due Diligence Bill, requiring companies to identify, prevent and take action to address child labour in their supply chains.
The new UK government’s first job will be to re-establish momentum towards more effective legislation
And in June, Finland announced its plans to make it mandatory for companies to carry out human rights due diligence, and pushed for similar laws at the EU level, having taking over the presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 July. There have also been debates on mandatory human rights due diligence in Germany, the UK, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg. And most recently, in late July, Kenya announced a National Action Plan that will consider such a law.
This is the situation in the European Union that will help inform the next phase of the Brexit negotiations.
The new UK government’s first job will be to re-establish momentum towards more effective legislation. They have been left some welcome presents on modern slavery from the outgoing administration. A recent Independent Review into the Modern Slavery Act made a series of recommendations on improving disclosure under the Act, many of which have been accepted by the government in its formal response. These include a central registry of companies’ modern slavery statements and plans for government departments to produce their own statements for their procurement spending.
In a House of Commons debate on the review in June, it was recognised that the law needs to be strengthened, with Labour MP Carolyn Harris arguing for a mandatory element for reporting, and “consequences” for failure to do so.
There is some cause for hope about an opportunity to build on the promise of mandated human rights checks to address modern slavery. Boris Johnson’s hand-picked home secretary, Priti Patel, has spoken out passionately about the need to tackle modern slavery. In a speech in September 2017, when she was International Development Secretary, Patel called on governments to “step up and take action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking – for everyone, everywhere”. A month later she backed a newspaper campaign on the issue, speaking of the need to tackle the “root causes” of modern slavery.
Patel will have to ensure Brexit does not deliver the feared rise in the number of people caught in modern slavery in the UK
As home secretary, Patel will also have to ensure that Brexit does not deliver the feared rise in the number of people caught in modern slavery in the UK, as migrant workers – already facing a more hostile state – are driven into the informal economy, where criminal gangs and unscrupulous firms await to exploit them. The government must also reverse its appalling policy reported this month of returning at least 36 victims of modern slavery to countries like Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam, where they risk further trafficking and exploitation.
The prime minister himself has promised a “truly global Britain” and to maintain close ties to Europe beyond Brexit. If he and his government are serious about this, they should join, and take a leading role, in the European and global drive for mandatory human rights due diligence, as the frontline in ending the forced labour of millions of workers around the world.
Phil Bloomer is executive director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
This article is part of the in-depth Human Rights briefing. See also: