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Modern Slavery: Your Obligations As An Employer (Wyn Lewis)

Modern Slavery: Your Obligations As An Employer (Wyn Lewis)

Wyn Lewis is an expert in Employment Law and HR issues. Read his discussion of how slavery does in fact still exist in 21st Century and the value of enacting the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Slavery exists.

Slavery exists despite its abolition by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 and other legislation in the 19th century (most of which has since been replaced by the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporating into British law Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits slavery).

Slavery also exists despite the ongoing work carried out by the charities such as Amnesty International and Anti Slavery International, which campaign against slavery worldwide.

So the need to enact the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the “MSA”) to address and combat modern slavery and human trafficking may come across as both unnecessary and unfortunate.

Of course modern slavery is (in some respects) different from the type of slavery that was abolished more than 180 years ago: ownership of people as chattels may be less of a live issue, with more focus being on detecting and preventing the exploitation of people as commodities in the workplace.

The need for the MSA is, to some extent, due to the free movement of people (at least for the time being – but watch out for Brexit-related immigration controls and for immigration-related US Executive Orders) and the international sourcing of goods and services for people in the EU and other developed economies. However like all good things, freedom of movement and international trade has a downside when it comes to staffing and the treatment of people.

So why is the MSA actually relevant now?

It’s because, in March 2017, we’re approaching the first full year (ending on 31 March 2017) in respect of which the requirements of the MSA have to be met by large commercial organisations which, if they carry on business in the UK and have a global turnover of more than £36m pa, have to:

  • prepare an annual slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year ending on or after 31st March 2016, stating what they have done (or not done) to ensure that human trafficking isn’t happening in any of its supply chains or in its business generally;
  • have the statement approved by the governing body of the organisation and signed by a director (if a limited company), a designated member (if an LLP) or a partner (if a partnership); and
  • publish their statement no later than 6 months after the end of the relevant reporting year (ideally by 30th September 2017) and have a prominent link to the statement on their home page.

That’s all well and good, but is there a sanction for not complying? As with the Gender Pay Gap Regulations (see my blog on this here) the answer is: no.

That said, the risk of reputational damage and other CSR drivers will cause most affected organisations to do what the MSA requires. It would also be a brave PR person who would be willing to explain a refusal to do so, as the Government has the power to apply for a Court injunction to require an affected organisation to comply with the MSA – and failure to comply with an injunction will be a contempt of court punishable by an unlimited fine (so directors will be at risk personally). And there is also an Anti-Slavery Commissioner who is tasked with publishing an annual report of the progress of the MSA. So there are several good reasons for complying.

Publishing a slavery and human trafficking statement will, of course, require quite a lot of work to be done in the background before it can be compiled. There will be a need:

  • to prepare a risk assessment process and incorporate this into global procurement processes;
  • to develop policies with suppliers that are transparent and free of slavery or trafficking;
  • to train staff who are involved in managing and analysing the data on what amounts to slavery;
  • and (for quoted companies) this will come on top of existing requirements to report on social, community and human rights issues.

 Admittedly, the MSA won’t apply to most employers. However, according to the Anti-Slavery Commissioner website in March 2017, there are more than 48 million people living in slavery today; there are about 13,000 potential victims of slavery living in the UK today; and there are some 21 million people working in forced labour.  So even if most employers aren’t affected, even smaller employers may well benefit from participating voluntarily in the reporting exercise if one of the side effects of this is to be regarded as an employer of choice by competent staff.