British farms failing modern slavery test: watchdog

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Agricultural companies in Britain are failing to comply with a tough anti-slavery law despite being considered potential hotbeds for forced labor, the anti-slavery watchdog said on Wednesday.

The Modern Slavery Act requires firms with a turnover of 36 million pounds ($46 million) or more to produce an annual statement showing what they have done to ensure their operations are slavery-free.

Less than half the agricultural companies in that category had complied by June, according to a report by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner - a lower proportion than in 2017.

“The initial response from agricultural companies to these reporting requirements was found to be generally poor, and, if anything, is getting worse,” lead author Andrew Phillips said in a statement.

There are about 136,000 modern slaves in Britain according the Walk Free Foundation’s 2018 Global Slavery Index - about 10 times more than a 2013 government estimate. Most are trapped in forced labor, sexual exploitation and forced marriages.

Agriculture is high-risk as it relies on low-skilled seasonal immigrant workers who sometimes face exploitative wages, unsanitary working and living conditions and even physical attacks from supervisors, experts say.

“Due to the nature of the work, it is not necessary to speak English, which ... is used as a way of controlling those who do not know or cannot understand their rights,” said Justine Currell, director of anti-slavery group Unseen.

The National Farmers Union said farmers took their responsibilities on the issue “very seriously”.

But the report, jointly released by the Commissioner and the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, found almost one in five of the companies that published a statement this year had simply reused last year’s.

Many provided only generic comments about modern slavery and did not refer to any steps taken to address it. Only a minority fulfilled the requirements in full.

Britain is considered an international leader in the fight against slavery having passed the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to jail traffickers for life, better protect vulnerable people, and compel large businesses to address the threat of forced labor.

Modern slavery in Britain mainly affects immigrants and vulnerable people, often working at car washes, construction sites, hotels, nail bars and farms, according to the anti-slavery body Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).

“We all have a responsibility to put an end to these repugnant practices so turning a blind eye and doing nothing to stop this abuse is not an option,” GLAA head of operations Ian Waterfield, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.