UK orders public sector to tackle modern slavery in supply chains

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Government departments and other public bodies in Britain will have to take action to ensure their suppliers do not engage in modern slavery under measures announced on Tuesday.

Britain said public-sector organisations with a budget of more than 36 million pounds ($46 million), including local authorities, would have to file an annual statement outlining their anti-slavery efforts.

Under the country’s landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act, big businesses already have to produce such a statement, though anti-slavery campaigners have said the law needs tougher penalties and increased compliance to be effective.

Public procurement is estimated to account for 15-20% of global gross domestic product, yet labour experts say efforts to combat supply chain slavery have been mostly led by big brands.

Victoria Atkins, minister for safeguarding and vulnerability, said no sector was “immune from the risks of modern slavery”.

“We expect businesses and public bodies to be open about the risks, including where they have found instances of exploitation and to demonstrate how they are taking targeted and sustained action to tackle modern slavery,” Atkins said in a statement.

The British government published its own anti-slavery statement in March, citing electronics, construction and service providers of cleaners and cooks as the riskiest sectors. The public sector accounts for about 250 billion pounds of spending.

The statement said the government had tens of thousands of suppliers and that many had complex global supply chains where “effective oversight is difficult to achieve”.

Among the other proposals announced, the Home Office (interior ministry) said it would launch a digital system to host anti-slavery statements and that it was committed to establishing a single enforcement body around employment rights.

Britain’s anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, said laws needed to implement the steps should be developed quickly.

A fifth of about 18,625 companies required to comply with Britain’s anti-slavery law have not issued statements, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.

And 29 of the nation’s 100 biggest suppliers did not meet the legal requirement in 2018, research by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell found last year.

Anti-Slavery International spokeswoman Ryna Sherazi said the announcement was a “lost opportunity” to introduce strong penalties for those who did not comply with the law, and urged the government to look beyond just transparency measures.

“There is a growing consensus that reporting measures... are not enough to drive positive change for workers,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“To remain a leader in ending modern slavery, Britain must urgently go beyond reporting requirements and make companies legally responsible for preventing modern slavery in their supply chains through tougher due diligence laws,” she added.

About 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labour - trapped in workplaces from farms and factories to fishing boats - according to the United Nations.

($1 = 0.7813 pounds)

Reporting by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit