One of the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is that companies with a turnover exceeding £36m must produce an annual modern slavery transparency statement, declaring how they safeguard human rights. Companies must also explain what steps they take to ensure that slavery does not occur in their business, or in their supply chain.
While it may be easy for British companies to be certain that their operations do not involve slavery or people trafficked into jobs they can’t leave, it’s much more difficult to verify conditions in far-east factories. The Modern Slavery Act is designed, in part, to tackle this issue, and prevent UK companies from turning a blind eye to abuses in the factories they depend on.
A recent study from the Department of Management Science at Lancaster University has delved into the modern slavery transparency statements from 101 UK companies in the clothing and textiles sector. As the authors of the report acknowledge, this sector has struggled with human rights abuses in recent years, problems that are exacerbated by the demands for fast, cheap fashion.
The researchers found a variety of approaches used in these reports, something that is unsurprising given that the reports have no fixed requirements. Companies are free to report – and omit – as much as they like.
Some companies use audits to check that their suppliers are adhering to agreed standards. But the usual approach for dealing with breaches is not well suited to the problem of modern slavery. For example, if an audit uncovers unsafe working practices, then the supplier and their customer would create a plan for remedying the problem. This approach allows problems to be resolved without significant interruptions to the supply chain. But, if an audit uncovered trafficked workers or slavery, then they would be duty-bound to report the matter to the relevant authorities – in spite of the PR nightmare this would entail for the customer.
Another issue the researchers uncovered is that slavery and people-trafficking are not always obvious; a trafficked worker may look like the free individual working next to them. So how can companies be confident that the goods they buy are not made by the hands of slaves? The report suggests that auditors may need to work more closely with their suppliers and law enforcement officials. Additionally, people working in these factories and workshops need to have the tools to raise the alarm and report abuses as soon as they arise.
The report was based on the first modern slavery statements required following the new legislation, so it may be the case that this first round was a learning process, and in subsequent years these reports may take on a uniform layout and include more concrete details about companies’ anti-slavery efforts.
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