January 22, 2019 / 5:20 PM / 8 months ago

Lawmakers urge UK to punish big companies that fail to tackle modern slavery

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain should give its landmark modern slavery law more bite and punish businesses and public bodies that fail to combat slavery in their supply chains, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires firms whose turnover exceeds 36 million pounds ($48 million) to produce an annual statement outlining the actions they have taken to avoid slavery in their operations. The law does not cover the public sector.

Yet a lack of enforcement and penalties, and confusion around the reporting requirements, have resulted in many companies flouting the law, three politicians said in a government-ordered review of the first-of-its-kind legislation.

Despite being hailed as a leader in the global anti-slavery drive, Britain in July announced a review of its law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive companies to spot and stop forced labor, or help victims.

“It is clear the current approach ... is not sufficient ... the impact has been limited to date,” the lawmakers said.

“It is time for the government to take tougher action to ensure companies are taking seriously their responsibilities to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains,” they added.

The politicians behind the review - Frank Field, Maria Miller and Elizabeth Butler-Sloss - said Britain should change the law to introduce penalties, ranging from fines and court summons to disqualifying directors of firms that fail to comply.

About 57 percent of 19,200 companies required to comply with the law have issued statements to date, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.

The Home Office (interior ministry) said it remained committed to fighting slavery, and would consider the findings.

“We have made significant progress so far ... (in) requiring companies to publish what they are doing to tackle slavery in their own supply chains,” a spokesman said.

“... And to lead by example the government will also be publishing its own transparency statement later this year.”

SHARPEN THE SCOPE

The review said the law should be sharpened to specify the scope of the anti-slavery statements, and remove a section that allows companies to comply by stating they have taken no action.

Britain should also follow the example of Australia - which in November passed a modern slavery law - by requiring large public bodies to file an anti-slavery report, the review said.

Four in 10 of the government’s 100 top suppliers flouted the law in 2017 by failing to outline their anti-slavery actions, found a study by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell.

Caroline Robinson, director of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), welcomed the recommendations to give the legislation more clout, but urged the government to broaden its approach.

“Sadly in the United Kingdom, we have seen many companies use this Act to deflect from wider labor rights abuses.”

“(They) choose to focus only on the most extreme instances of labor exploitation instead of endemic abuse throughout supply chains,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation - a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.

Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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