Modern Slavery in the UK & the Importance of Whistleblowing

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What is Modern Slavery?

Modern slavery covers various forms of exploitation, including:

  • forced labour
  • human trafficking
  • debt bondage

Despite being illegal, modern slavery remains a significant problem in the UK in many sectors – notably agriculture, construction, hospitality, and manufacturing.

In 2022, the NRM received 16,938 referrals of potential victims of modern slavery, which represents a 33% increase in referrals compared to the preceding year (12,706).

What legislation is in place to combat Modern Slavery?

Modern Slavery Act

In 2015, the UK government introduced the Modern Slavery Act, which established new legislation surrounding slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour, and human trafficking. The act also introduced a statutory defence for victims of slavery and forced labour who commit offenses, such as criminal damage or theft, as a direct result of their exploitation.

Under the Modern Slavery Act, companies with a turnover of more than £36 million must produce an annual statement outlining their efforts to prevent modern slavery from occurring within their operations and supply chains. While this requirement has been criticised for being too lenient, it has encouraged companies to take steps to identify and address instances of modern slavery in their organisations.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA

The GLAA was established in 2017 to prevent worker exploitation in industries such as agriculture, horticulture, and food processing. The GLAA has the power to investigate and prosecute instances of worker exploitation and provides support to victims.

The Immigration Act 2016 

This act introduced new measures to prevent illegal working, including the power to close businesses that employ illegal workers and increased penalties for employers who break the law. These measures have helped to reduce the demand for illegal labour and have made it harder for those involved in modern slavery to operate.

What can UK businesses do to prevent Modern Slavery?

Preventing modern slavery is an ethical imperative and can help UK companies avoid reputational damage. Companies that fail to prevent modern slavery risk legal liability, and financial losses. In addition, modern slavery can lead to a range of negative consequences, including reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and high staff turnover rates.

To prevent modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, companies can take a range of measures, including conducting risk assessments, auditing their supply chains, and providing training to employees on reporting instances of modern slavery. Companies can also work with their suppliers and other stakeholders to improve labour conditions and promote ethical business practices.

Engaging in ethical recruitment practices and ensuring that workers are recruited fairly is also an effective way of combating modern slavery. This includes ensuring that workers are not charged recruitment fees, that their contracts are written in a language they understand, and that they are informed of their rights and protections under UK law.

Why is whistleblowing important to Modern Slavery?

Whistleblowing occurs when a worker discloses information about illegal or unethical activities in their workplace to an appropriate internal or external channel. Whistleblowers play a critical role in identifying and stopping instances of modern slavery in the workplace, as they may be the only individuals with direct knowledge of such activities.

In the UK, whistleblowers are protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998, which protects workers from being dismissed, demoted, or victimised for making a protected disclosure.

Providing independent, external reporting avenues is the best way to optimise the efficacy of your company’s whistleblowing process, and to increase the level of trust your employees have in your reporting systems.

Individuals are more likely to come forward to speak up against modern slavery if they are confident, they can do so anonymously and securely.

Modern Slavery in 2023

In March 2023, the UK government announced their plans for a new Illegal Migration Bill (or Stop the Boats bill). The bill aims to discourage people from crossing the Channel in small boats. Those that do make the journey will be prevented from claiming asylum in the UK, and a claim of modern slavery will not prevent their removal from the country, as previously was the case. Those arriving in the UK via irregular means will not have access to modern slavery support.

This will have a large impact for organisations who directly or indirectly employ migrant workers.

Concerns have been raised by UK politicians across the major parties, and the UN[1], surrounding the effects this may have on modern slavery activity in the UK and the protection offered to those at risk of modern slavery. So, at this time, it is crucial to ensure your business has the necessary systems in place to identify and handle suspected modern slavery concerns.


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