Many people associate slavery with a bygone era. Yet there are around 25 million people in slavery in the world today – more than the population of Australia and more than at any point in recorded history.
To address this issue, in March 2015 the Modern Slavery Act received Royal Assent. The Act was introduced to combat modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK and set out new requirements for organisations.
These requirements include publishing a statement spelling out the steps the business has taken to ensure there is no slavery in the business or its supply chains.
But almost five years on from its creation, has the Modern Slavery Act achieved what its backers hoped it would? And what role can and should HR play in rooting out modern slavery from organisations?
When the Act was introduced it was considered ground-breaking and it has led to some positive change, says Susan Banister, head of business development at the Slave-Free Alliance.
But, if the events of 2019 are anything to go by, modern slavery is very much alive in the UK. Back in July members of a West Midlands criminal gang were jailed for their part in the biggest modern slavery network ever exposed in the UK. Dubbed Operation Fort, the investigation uncovered a network of more than 400 victims.
Banister feels part of the challenge is that traffickers have become more “entrepreneurial and innovative”.
“We had a number of businesses that got caught out in Operation Fort, but had the HR team been more aware, and had staff been trained to look for the signs of modern slavery, we think that they would have picked up that there were victims in their organisation,” she says.
“People are not looking in their own organisations because they don’t think it could happen to them. As a result people are being hidden in plain sight.”
For many HR departments modern slavery simply isn’t on their radar, says Ian Pettigrew, director and coach at Kingfisher Coaching and trustee of Retrak, a charity that helps street children across Africa.
“Most HR people are ignorant of modern slavery and trafficking,” says Pettigrew. “If you have a chat with the average HR person they are probably no better informed about modern slavery and trafficking than the average person on the street.”
He doesn’t believe HR has made a conscious decision to ignore the issue though. “I think HR is constantly being bombarded with new legislation and with business change, and this is something that just hasn’t made it on the radar. I think it’s genuinely just a lack of awareness.”
HR can’t afford to stay in the dark any longer, says Banister, as – government penalties aside – there is also a growing financial imperative to conform. “The City is now looking at compliance and sustainable businesses because they want to be investing and lending to businesses that tick all of those boxes,” she says.
One company leading the charge on this front is CCLA, which manages investments exclusively for charities, religious organisations and the public sector.
In November the charity fund manager brought the issue into the spotlight again, when it claimed that virtually every company in the UK has connections to slavery somewhere in its operations and warned that little progress had been made since the Modern Slavery Act came into force.
“What we’ve seen is a lot of companies have stood up and developed really good policies, processes and modern slavery statements related to the work that they’re doing, but we are slightly concerned that with 25 million slaves in the world – and despite these modern slavery processes and policies being put in place – very few companies are actually finding or reporting finding instances in their supply chain, and we think that’s really odd,” explains James Corah, head of ethical and responsible investment at CCLA.
“So there’s a real mismatch between what people recognise as the scale of the problem, what people say they are doing, and the results of what they’re doing.”
CCLA has developed an initiative called ‘Find it, Fix it, Prevent it’ to help companies identify and address issues of modern slavery in their supply chains.
“Normally I go to companies and talk to them about how ‘we want you to make sure that you’re not finding a human rights abuse’, whereas actually this programme is all about saying ‘you have it, it’s in your supply chain, we’ll help you find it and fix it’.
"And instead of vilifying the people who’ve done the right thing and stood up and found it, we should actually be celebrating those who have policies and processes in place that are working,” says Corah.
He acknowledges that this will require a “huge, huge mindset change” – something that HR is well placed to shift.
Quintin Lake, executive director at Fifty Eight, which works with organisations to improve working conditions in their global supply chains and address the challenges of modern slavery, says HR should also be setting policy and assessing practices on how an organisation engages with and contracts temporary or agency labour providers.
“Temp and agency labour is a known area of modern slavery risk in the UK – particularly in organisations that use seasonal or low-skilled agency labour in sectors such as agriculture, catering, cleaning, security, hospitality and logistics,” says Lake.
“Migrant employees/workers are most at risk of modern slavery in the UK, and special attention needs to be given to policies and practices relating to migrant workers. Even if robust HR policies are in place, migrants may have experienced exploitation in the early stages of recruitment and migration. Checks should be in place to help identify these issues and provide support or remediation.”
Lake adds that HR also has a vital role to play in supporting procurement and operations teams in the way they engage with suppliers on modern slavery due diligence to better identify issues or improve practices.
Awareness in the workforce
It is a sentiment echoed by Melanie Flogdell, divisional HR director at waste management compay Biffa. Since 2016 Biffa has been working with international anti-human trafficking charity Hope for Justice on a programme that promotes awareness of modern slavery among the workforce.
“We fully recognise the important role that we as a business can play in supporting the fight against modern slavery,” says Flogdell. “We review all potential modern slavery risks related to our business and undertake training for managers and employees to ensure that we minimise risk of slavery in the company.”
Flogdell goes as far as to say HR should be the one taking the lead in this area.
She says: “We are the conscience of the organisation and the guardians of our people – but it needs business buy-in, particularly procurement and risk and executive support.”
This piece appeared in the January 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk