LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pushing businesses to tackle modern slavery, protecting victims from being treated like criminals and jailing more slavemasters should top the agenda as Britain reviews its landmark law amid concerns it is failing to curb the evolving crime, experts say.
Britain has been considered a global leader in the fight to end slavery since passing the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to combat a trade that spans from people enslaved at farms, nail salons and car washes to children used as drug mules and sold for sex.
The law introduced life sentences for traffickers, measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved, and made large companies go public with their efforts to address forced labour.
The legislation has been hailed for blazing a trail globally with nations from Australia to India poised to pass similar laws as the world seeks to meet a United Nations goal of ending by 2030 a crime estimated to enslave at least 40 million people.
Yet Britain in July announced a review of the law, following criticism from campaigners, lawyers and politicians. They say traffickers are often one step ahead of law enforcement, and the legislation is not being effectively or fully used.
“The sad truth is that it (the law) has not been a huge success in what it’s been designed to do – tackling slavery,” Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe manager for charity Anti-Slavery International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She spoke ahead of Anti-Slavery Day on Oct. 18 - set by parliament to raise awareness of the issue in Britain.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 slaves, trafficked from countries such as Albania, Vietnam and Nigeria, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free - a figure 10 times higher than the government’s 2013 estimate.
The crime sets the country back by up to 4.3 billion pounds annually, putting slavery second only to homicide in terms of its cost to British society, recent government data revealed.
Britain’s minister for crime Victoria Atkins told lawmakers last week at least 950 ongoing modern slavery investigations were ongoing - more than a five-fold increase since 2016.
About 5,145 possible victims were referred to the government for support last year - up from 3,804 in 2016 - yet campaigners say many slaves remain hidden, often due to fear of authorities.
VICTIM OR CRIMINAL?
One of the biggest concerns regarding the law is that many slavery victims are wrongly convicted of crimes despite the fact that the legislation has a defence for people who are coerced or compelled to commit offences by traffickers, two lawyers said.
“A lack of understanding of the legislation is leading to victims of trafficking not being identified or protected,” said Ahmed Aydeed of law firm Duncan Lewis, adding that victims often return to their traffickers, or face prosecution or deportation.
The failure to spot victims involved in forced criminality - from cannabis production to prostitution related offences - reflects the low number of prosecutions and static conviction rate under the law, said Philippa Southwell of Birds Solicitors.
A record 239 people were charged with slavery offences in Britain over the past year - up a quarter on the year before - according to Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) data.
Yet slavery prosecutions fell to 284 this year from 295 in 2016, while convictions dipped to 185 from 192 in that period.
“Key evidence is lost when we fail to identify cases of forced criminality and modern slavery at first contact or shortly thereafter,” Southwell said. “Many victims are not identified for months, even years after their exploitation.”
The CPS said slavery cases were among their most complex - the average time to complete a slavery prosecution has doubled to almost three years since 2015 - and highlighted recent landmark convictions as evidence of the law’s reach and clout.
In two firsts, a drug dealer was jailed for 14 years for trafficking teenagers to sell drugs, while a nurse got 18 years for forcing Nigerians into sex work not in Britain but Europe, having used black magic to control the five women.
PRIVATE SECTOR PRESSURE
Politicians and analysts say the law is failing to spur the private sector to shine a spotlight on their supply chains.
Under the Act, firms with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds must issue an annual statement outlining steps they have taken to combat the risk of forced labour in their operations.
But there are no penalties for businesses that fail to do so, and just over half of the about 19,000 companies required to comply with the law have issued statements to date, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.
“Companies which are demonstrating a strong commitment ... feel that they are being undercut by competitors using unethical labour practices and modern slavery in their supply chains,” said lawmaker and anti-slavery advocate Baroness Lola Young.
“(The legislation) must be strengthened to ensure that a true level-playing field is created for all companies.”
The government should force companies to take meaningful action, monitor their efforts and publicly name and shame those that flout the law, said Patricia Carrier, project manager at The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a pressure group.
The Home Office (interior ministry) said it would write to the heads of all businesses covered by the law, and that those who failed to take action could expect “tougher consequences”.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to end exploitation, which is why we have launched an independent review ... so as this awful crime evolves so does our response,” a spokesman said.
FROM ACT TO ACTION
Other criticisms of the law range from a lack of support and compensation for survivors to state interference in the work of Britain’s inaugural independent anti-slavery tsar, Kevin Hyland, who resigned in May. He is yet to be replaced.
“The commissioner must be able to drive Britain forward and hold the government to account without fear or favour,” he said.
Hyland also demanded better long-term help for victims under the legislation, saying that “protection leads to prosecutions”.
And campaigners are calling for the law to be widened to recognise emerging forms of modern slavery, such as so-called orphanage trafficking, whereby children with living relatives are put in institutions to attract foreign donations.
Despite its limitations, the law has raised awareness of modern slavery, granted police and prosecutors greater powers, and set a solid baseline to tackle the crime, according to Justine Currell, executive director of the charity Unseen.
“We must remember that legislation is a mere facilitator,” said Currell, formerly a modern slavery policy advisor for the government. “It is strategy and operational activity that will ultimately increase awareness, prosecutions and convictions.”