Modern Slavery – what is all the fuss about?

Published on
5 min read

Over the past few months, there has been a considerable upsurge in the level of press coverage relating to incidents of modern slavery. There has also been a significant focus on a number of high profile businesses failing, inadvertently or otherwise, to comply with the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Over the past few months, there has been a considerable upsurge in the level of press coverage relating to incidents of modern slavery. There has also been a significant focus on a number of high profile businesses failing, inadvertently or otherwise, to comply with the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the Act). The consequence of this for these businesses has often been some quite negative publicity and, as the risk of slavery and forced labour in the food and agriculture industry is considered particularly high, it is even more important to ensure that your business is above reproach with respect to such complying with the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act.

However, while quick to condemn those organisations currently in the spotlight, many such press articles seem to raise more questions than they answer – what exactly is modern slavery? What is the Act trying to achieve? And what will happen if your business fails to comply?

What is modern slavery?

The term “modern slavery” is quite widely defined under the Act, encompassing a range of situations and circumstances. The Act makes reference to holding a person in slavery or servitude (taking into account their age and level of vulnerability and regardless of whether they consented to the same), obliging them to perform forced or compulsory labour and facilitating their travel for the purposes of exploiting them.

Such exploitation can also take many forms, not only relating to slavery, servitude and forced labour but also including sexual exploitation, the removal of organs and securing services by force, threats or deception. In the food and agriculture sector, given the nature of the often low paid labour and the complex international supply chains, there is particular risk of slavery and forced labour across the sector – from production and processing to packaging and transportation and even catering.

While the Act reaffirms the criminal nature of all of these activities, it also requires businesses with an annual turnover of £36 million or over to carry out due diligence on both their own business and their suppliers to seek to ensure that no such activities are occurring within their own business or their supply chains. The main objective of this part of the Act is to increase awareness of modern slavery and promote integrity and transparency across the business world.

Businesses which reach the turnover threshold are obliged (and businesses below the turnover threshold are encouraged) to publish an annual statement with details of the steps each have taken to identify and combat risks of slavery and human trafficking in their own business and their supply chains. Despite the turnover threshold, our experience is that any business involved in making supplies in the food and agriculture sector will be required by food retailers to comply with strict ethical standards, including labour standards.

Retailers are extremely keen to ensure the integrity of the products they supply and, as such, are seeking to ensure that modern slavery isn’t occurring in any part of their supply chain. Commercially, therefore, the risk to a business of non-compliance is great, including the risk of being removed from the retailers approved supplier list (de-listing).

Not all publicity is good publicity

While the Secretary of State has the power to bring civil proceedings for an injunction against organisations which fail to comply with the requirements of the Act, negative media reporting and resultant reputational damage and the commercial risk of de-listing often prove to be consequences of greater concern. Several high profile stories over the past few months have demonstrated the potency and potential backlash of such coverage.

Earlier this year, Segura conducted research and “named and shamed” several businesses which had missed the deadline for publishing their annual modern slavery statement (as required by the Act). This included chocolatier, Hotel Chocolat and sandwich chain, EAT. The statements of many other businesses were highlighted by CORE (the UK’s civil society coalition on corporate accountability) as being inadequate; for example leading tea manufacturers Tetley (Tata Global Beverages) and Typhoo were criticised for failing to acknowledge the risk of low wages and poor working conditions on tea plantations in Assam, and Ferrero and Lindt & Sprungli for not mentioning the prevalence of forced labour related to cocoa production in Western Africa, despite all openly acknowledging that they source from those areas respectively.

It is, by all means, possible to gain some positive PR by reacting quickly and decisively in the event of any potential issue being raised. Over the past few years, food production giant Nestlé has attracted a great deal of publicity regarding its admission of having child labour on some of its Ivory Coast cocoa farms and the legal action brought against it in the US by the International Labour Rights Forum in relation to the same. Despite this, it was recently praised by Confectionery News for the subsequent steps it had taken which have included continually monitoring and promoting child protection and access to education in rural areas.

In late October, a German documentary appeared to feature workers forced to endure inhumane treatment amounting to modern slavery in the plantations of North East Brazil. Haribo, which uses the carnauba wax from the plantations in the production of its sweets, is now conducting its own investigation into the accuracy of these claims. As recently as late November, the Evening Standard published a list of prestigious businesses which have so far signed its pledge to “Stop Slavery”, including Subway, Unilever and Lidl, effectively boosting their PR in relation to this topic and demonstrating the potential positivity of media attention.

Conclusion

In short, the eventual aim of the Act is to support the eradication of slavery and human trafficking, which can only be a good thing; yet it cannot be denied that the media plays a major part in the portrayal of businesses and their actions (or lack thereof) with respect to modern slavery. However, businesses can influence whether that depiction is ultimately positive or negative by their attitudes and the ways in which they react to any potentially damaging press attention.

Devoting sufficient time and effort to ensuring compliance with the Act now would not only demonstrate your business’s commitment to supporting the objectives of the Act but may also reflect favourably in any relevant media coverage. Conversely, in the event of any nasty surprises, it is nevertheless reassuring to know that redemption is always possible by thorough investigations and proactive steps to avoid any recurrence.
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