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World Day against Trafficking in Persons, 30 July 2020

Kavita Modi discusses what can be done in the UK to prevent human trafficking and forced labour

Human trafficking and forced labour
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Kavita is a solicitor in the international department.
The focus on forced labour conditions in Leicester’s garment factories has demonstrated that current systems of regulation and inspection are insufficient even within the UK to prevent modern slavery.

A recent report estimated that 100,000 people may be victims of modern slavery in the UK, 10 times more than the Government’s 2017 estimate.  Globally, an estimated 40 million people are trapped in modern slavery. 

These shocking figures reflect a situation where international conventions prohibit forced labour and trafficking but where we lack an effective system to prevent people becoming victims of modern slavery, forced labour and trafficking.

These terms describe partially overlapping forms of abuse.  Trafficking is explained by Anti-Slavery International as
“…the process of trapping people through the use of violence, deception or coercion and exploiting them for financial or personal gain.” 

The International Labour Organisation explains forced labour as “… work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”

Trafficking and forced labour are both elements of modern slavery.  Whilst sexual exploitation is the most common form of exploitation linked to trafficking, forced labour is present in some 34 per cent of trafficking cases.

Millions of people, desperate for a decent salary, are lured into work overseas, where on arrival the promised salary fails to materialise. 

In the Gulf countries, which rely on vast numbers of migrant workers, the limits on democratic rights and freedoms create a situation where exploitation thrives. 

Freedom of association and expression are curtailed - even meetings about workers’ rights have to be conducted in a clandestine way for fear of the authorities. 

Passports are often taken by the employer on arrival.  Recruitment fees, even where supposedly prohibited, must often be paid. 

The struggle to be able to send money back home, to support families in need, is then even tougher.  Living conditions are poor, and there are restrictions on leaving the labour camps where many migrants live. 

There are also significant issues of racism which contribute to the appalling situation faced by migrant workers.  The power imbalance is pronounced – those arriving to work may have never been overseas before and the restrictions they face make challenging employers extremely difficult, particularly when support to do so may be hard to find.

The lack of opportunities in their home countries can mean that workers may return to such work, because they have no real alternative. 

Whilst the changes needed to tackle the underlying causes of such exploitation are undoubtedly complex, there are important steps that can be taken in the UK.

Firstly, human rights due diligence legislation is being introduced in some European countries to ensure that companies are required to consider and minimise human rights violations within their supply chains, including forced labour and trafficking. 

The EU has also committed to introduce such legislation.  The Joint Committee on Human Rights has called for such legislation to be introduced in the UK, including remedies against parent companies where abuses occur and a defence where companies have conducted effective due diligence.

Supply chains are often complex and many companies have not traced through where the supply chain leads. 

This situation leads to headlines every so often that a well known company is in fact dependent on forced labour, child labour or trafficking – most recently, there have been revelations of corporate reliance on the forced labour of the persecuted Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. 

There have been widespread calls for a toughening up of the modern slavery reporting mechanisms, including from the anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton.

Secondly, the UK government should ensure that public procurement helps to tackle these problems.  The UK government published its first Modern Slavery Statement on 18 March 2020. 

A number of areas of concern were identified, but the document lacks detail and central government departments, whose statements might be expected to be more in-depth, are not due to publish their own modern slavery statements until 2022.  

The joint civil society response to the statement pointed to the absence of a commitment to exclude companies who fail to comply with the UK reporting requirements from government tendering processes.  
Nor is it clear what action government will take where a supplier publishes an inadequate statement or identifies instances of modern slavery but then fails to take proper steps to address the problem.

The UK government statement was published on a voluntary basis as there is currently no legal requirement for government bodies to do so. 

The Independent Review of the UK Modern Slavery Act recommended that this gap in the legislation must be filled and the government has agreed that it should be subject to the same transparency requirements as business, although the details of the scope of any such requirement remain to be seen. 

The civil society response to the government statement also highlighted another important way in which the government can help to tackle modern slavery.

They said: “Given that the workforce in the sectors identified by Government as “high risk” is largely made up of migrant workers with varying legal status, we strongly emphasise that modern slavery risks should not be exacerbated by immigration policy and enforcement.
"Poorly designed immigration policy creates vulnerability in workers. Labour inspection and police work conducted in conjunction with immigration enforcement can lead to action against migrant workers, curtailing their ability to seek support for abuse or exploitation.”   

Anti-Slavery International draws a link between the government’s hostile environment policy and trafficking and modern slavery. 

Whilst the growing moves to tackling abuses within government and corporate supply chains are to be welcomed, the connections between government policy and the creation of conditions that increase the risks of modern slavery should not be overlooked.

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