The existence of modern slavery poses a significant threat to thousands of individuals across the UK. This unlawful practice, which can include victims being forced into servitude and made to endure sub-standard and often dangerous working conditions for little or no pay, continues to grow despite the best efforts of law enforcement agencies. Given the nature of the problem, employers have been encouraged to play their part in preventing this illegal practice.
One of the difficulties with preventing modern slavery is that is often hidden in plain sight, with victims fearful of coming forward and reporting traffickers due to threats of violence or abuse. High street fixtures such as nail salons, car washes and restaurants are some of the more common examples of organisations who benefit from this unlawful activity, whilst the practice is also an unfortunate feature of the construction and farming industries.
Currently, organisations are encouraged to use their position within the employment market to guard against the existence of modern slavery. Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, those with an annual turnover of £36million or more are required to produce a modern slavery statement each year. These statements, which should be published within six months of the financial year end, must outline the steps the organisation has taken to ensure modern slavery does not exist within their business or supply chains.
Whilst many reputable employers may be convinced that modern slavery does not exist in their organisation, there are numerous examples of those who have unknowingly facilitated this form of labour abuse. Employers should be particularly wary when taking on new staff, especially if these are provided by unfamiliar employment agencies, as notable examples have seen firms hire workers in good faith who were in fact being forced to work by criminal organisations.
With this in mind the Home Office have recently announced plans to review the Modern Slavery Act to ensure it remains fit for purpose. The review, which will last until March 2019, will focus on the ways employers can increase awareness of modern slavery amongst their workforce and any guidance which can help them to identify the existence of modern slavery in their supply chains or customers’ organisations.
Following this review, there is a possibility that the need to publish a modern slavery statement will be extended. Although a number of organisations not within scope of the Act already publish theirs voluntarily, recognising this as a way to boost their reputation amongst potential clients and the general public, this may become mandatory for some smaller firms. In the meantime, employers should ensure HR personnel and line managers inform staff of the signs of labour abuse using promotional material which will help their organisation stay protected.
The perception that modern slavery is an underground phenomenon can be costly for employers, who need to realise that this may exist within their own business operations. Employers should take a keen interest in the findings of the Home Office’s review into the Modern Slavery Act and be willing to comply with any new regulations that come into force as a result.