· 2 min read · Features

The Modern Slavery Act: One year on

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One year since the Modern Slavery Act was introduced pressure on business is mounting

Last year’s Modern Slavery Act signalled a new push in the fight against slavery and trafficking and included a duty on businesses to play their part in stopping modern slavery in global supply chains.

One year on, the pressure on UK employers to act is mounting, given this year’s Immigration Act, the sharp rise in the number of slavery victims and police prosecutions, and Theresa May’s new anti-slavery taskforce. Developments abroad are also gaining traction with US, French and EU legislative moves and growing global corporate scrutiny, including media campaigns and benchmarking activities.

The role of HR

Where HR is positively engaged in steps to tackle slavery risks the business can strengthen and deepen its response. For example, by drawing on HR’s knowledge to identify vulnerable business relationships. However, HR cannot and should not do this alone. Our Human rights at work 2016 survey underlines the need for senior management commitment and collaboration across business functions if significant progress is to be made.

A recap: the duty to report under the Act

The Act requires qualifying businesses to publicly report the steps they have taken to ensure their operations and supply chains are trafficking- and slavery-free. Qualifying businesses are those companies and partnerships supplying goods or services with global turnovers of £36 million and above, providing they conduct business in the UK.

To comply organisations are expected to report annually and within six months of year-end on policies, risk assessments, due diligence processes, training, and the effectiveness of measures taken to combat slavery and trafficking. The annual report must be signed and approved at the highest level in the organisation and be accessible from its homepage.

The key steps HR can take

In these early days of the Act, HR can play an integral role by:

Helping to raise awareness. Our survey identified training and communication as a key challenge to implementing change. Many of the statements published make reference to training staff on modern slavery and HR is ideally placed to help.

Collaborating on policy development. Many of the businesses reporting have introduced new or amended policies and codes of conduct, such as anti-slavery, ethics, recruitment or whistleblowing. HR, working together with compliance, legal, procurement and others, can help to develop policies that are fit for purpose and embedded in the organisation. Similarly, HR’s experience of dealing with grievances and employees ‘speaking out’ or whistleblowing can be brought to bear when deciding how suspicions or allegations of slavery should be investigated and remediated.

Participating in risk assessments. HR may be reluctant to take part in assessing the risk of slavery and trafficking in supply chains or outsourced relationships. However, compliance, procurement and others involved in such risk assessments may typically lack HR’s expertise on recruitment practices, the use of agency labour and different workforce models. This expertise can help identify slavery risks and to decide on proportionate preventative action.

Tom Player is partner at Eversheds