May 20, 2019 / 5:15 PM / 4 months ago

UPDATE 1-UK urged to 'lead by example' on slavery as top state suppliers flout law

(Adds comments from new anti-slavery commissioner)

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain is failing to lead by example in efforts to stop modern slavery as nearly a third of the government’s top suppliers are flouting a landmark anti-slavery law, analysts said on Monday.

About 29 of the nation’s 100 biggest suppliers last year did not meet a legal requirement to outline the steps they had taken to combat the risk of forced labour within their supply chains, showed research by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell.

Four of the suppliers in sectors from aerospace and defence to recruitment did not produce a statement, while others such as Microsoft did not feature it correctly on their websites or failed to have the document signed by directors, the study said.

“It is reasonable for the business community to expect the government to first lead by example and ensure that its own suppliers are legally compliant,” the report read.

“Non-compliance ... stands at 29% – in our view, a very high failure rate given the simplicity of the legal requirements.”

Britain’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires companies whose turnover exceeds 36 million pounds ($46 million) to produce an annual statement detailing the actions they have taken to tackle slavery in their operations, but does not include public bodies.

Just under three-quarters of about 17,000 firms required to comply with the law have issued statements to date, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.

The legislation is under review over concerns that Britain is struggling to stay ahead in the global push to end slavery and lawmakers and activists have called for it to be sharpened by including tougher penalties and covering the public sector.

The Home Office (interior ministry) said the government was committed to preventing slavery in public sector supply chains.

“We are conducting a thorough audit of which companies are compliant ... and those not complying, including government suppliers, risk being publicly named,” a spokeswoman said.

Britain’s new independent anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton said the law should be widened to also cover the public sector.

“It is absolutely essential that government leads by example,” the former head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council said at the launch of the report.

“Not just central government, but NHS trusts, local authorities and police forces,” she said in her first public appearance since taking up the post this month - a year after the inaugural chief resigned expressing frustration about state interference in his role.

Britain’s top 100 suppliers accounted for 9.3 billion pounds worth of state contracts in 2018, yet 30% of the money went to firms that flouted the anti-slavery law, according to the study.

The number of compliant companies rose to 71 last year from 53 in 2017 yet the tally remains low due to poor government enforcement of the law, a lack of penalties for failing to comply and reluctance from business, Sancroft and Tussell said.

Airbus, accountancy firm Ernst & Young (EY) and Microsoft were among the non-compliant companies having failed to link to a statement on their website homepages, the research found.

Yet Airbus and EY said they complied with the law after being informed of their omissions, according to Sancroft and Tussell. Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.

“Failure to comply with the Act should result in the contract being terminated,” Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) - a group of trade unions, firms and charities promoting workers’ rights - told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith 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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