· Features

HR's role in combatting modern slavery

HR professionals have a key role to play in the fight against modern slavery

Theresa May’s announcement that Britain will lead the fight against modern slavery with a new government taskforce and £33 million of aid funding is welcome news. Hult International Business School, in partnership with the Ethical Trading Initiative, has found that modern slavery is endemic. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of companies agree there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some stage in their supply chain.

HR professionals have a key part to play in the fight against this scourge on modern business by raising awareness of the issue, providing training, and helping to ensure an aligned and consistent organisational response.

Businesses are already compelled to take action. Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 companies with an annual turnover of £36 million or more have to produce a yearly statement outlining steps they have taken to address the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains and within their business. Among the list of areas they need to report on are how they evaluate and manage risks in their organisation and supply chain, what auditing processes they have in place, and what awareness training is provided.

Our research, which involved in-depth interviews with a cross-section of companies from retail and grocery to health and personal care, suggests there are four main areas where HR has a key role to play:

Creating multi-disciplinary teams: Part of the challenge for organisations is that modern slavery touches different parts of the business in different ways. There is often no clear ‘ownership’ and as a result action is often inconsistent and un-coordinated. HR practitioners need to take the lead in drawing together a multi-disciplinary team, comprising leaders from across procurement, HR, legal, risk and commercial, to lead the organisational response. This will help the business move away from a siloed approach and will ensure that priorities and KPIs are not conflicting.

Supporting the leadership team: One of the key messages to come out of our research is that combatting modern slavery is a leadership issue. There was clear evidence that companies with leaders who provide strong vision and support for addressing modern slavery, as well as a pathway of accountability, are able to make more progress than those who do not. HR needs to use its influence to make sure modern slavery is on the agenda at the very highest level and to support the board in communicating a strong and purposeful stance to the rest of the business.

Building capability: HR can make a major contribution in ensuring the organisation has the right skills in place to tackle modern slavery. This is about both recruiting the right people and helping those in critical roles develop their skills. It’s an emerging skillset and managers may need support across a spectrum of activities, from commercial and cultural awareness to building relationships of trust and transparency with suppliers.

Sharing best practice: HR is in a prime position to influence the employment practices adopted by its suppliers, particularly in relation to agency or temporary labour. There is potential, for example, to share HR best practice across the supply chain network, to help suppliers develop their own capabilities in managing their workforce and addressing modern slavery.

Ultimately, minimising the risk of modern slavery in your business is about addressing the human rights risks to people – whether they are directly employed, agency workers, or are working in the supply chain. At its core HR is about caring for people in their place of work, and putting policies and systems in place to ensure that they are safe. These skills are needed more than ever in addressing the challenge of modern slavery.

Quintin Lake is a research fellow at Hult International Business School