LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From life imprisonment for human traffickers to forcing pimps to pay compensation to their victims, Britain has some of the world’s toughest sanctions against modern slavery.
Passed a little more than a year ago, Britain’s Modern Slavery Act has been hailed as a milestone in the anti-slavery fight, combining harsh penalties with progressive measures such as better protections for people at risk of being enslaved.
It also requires companies to disclose what they are doing to make sure supply chains are free from slavery, a crime that affects some 46 million people worldwide, with up to 13,000 in Britain.
Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May warned traffickers: “We are coming after you.”
But does Britain’s approach to fighting slavery live up to the hype? Is it a model for other countries to follow? Does it offer the right balance of carrot and stick to ensure meaningful change on the front lines of the anti-trafficking fight?
As Britain marks Anti-Slavery Day, a day set by parliament to raise awareness of slavery and trafficking, we asked experts for their views on the effectiveness - or otherwise - of the Modern Slavery Act. Here are their responses.
When I meet with representatives of different organisations across the world, people do talk about the Modern Slavery Act as being groundbreaking and being world-leading... The legislation is seen as capturing all areas, from looking after the victims, from real rule of law, from prevention, from accountability and then from bringing in the private sector as well.
Anti-Slavery International has lobbied for a law like the Modern Slavery Act for nearly two decades, so it’s a strange feeling now to feel rather unsatisfied. We have argued for years that providing a comprehensive support and protection to all victims of modern slavery should be at the heart of anti-slavery law and practice. Sadly, this is the area that is still lacking the most. Too often victims are still not believed, don’t get the support they need, or are treated as immigration offenders and deported rather than protected.
What’s needed is a complete overhaul where the focus is on how we help survivors long-term from a position of vulnerability to a place of resilience. Most survivors we work with want to thrive, despite the trauma of modern slavery, but the current system is perfectly designed to deliver the results we have: a safety net temporarily arresting the plunge down the side of a cliff.
The UK transparency provisions are light touch - in the sense that companies can comply simply by saying they have no policies in place to deal with forced labour or slavery (assuming that’s the case). And the provisions are not backed by any meaningful sanctions. But their power comes from the fact that they require directors and management to turn their mind to issues of forced labour and modern slavery - often for the very first time.
Tackling human trafficking is vital in destination countries such as the UK, to identify and support victims and prosecute offenders. The Modern Slavery Act provides the backbone for this work by many statutory agencies and NGOs. But if we fail to address the problem in source countries, then the number of people who go through the trauma of being trafficked will not reduce.
PHIL BLOOMER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, BUSINESS & HUMAN RIGHTS RESOURCE CENTRE:
No company wants slavery in its supply chain. The Modern Slavery Act allows us to compare companies’ commitments to eliminate this scourge that was supposed to be abolished 150 years ago. Our Modern Slavery Act Registry of over 750 company statements enables investors and consumers to reward the leading companies, and press the laggards to improve. So far, only a handful of companies, such as M&S and SAB Miller, Burberry, Ford and Mothercare, have produced statements to be proud of.
The Transparency in Supply Chains clause is genius ... All this doesn’t mean some companies will still treat it as a ‘tick box exercise’. But, equally, it does, at the very least, compel them to consider how their business impacts on the broader human rights of people working in their entire supply chain and not only those employed in their direct business operations.
BRANDEE BUTLER, HEAD OF JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS, C&A FOUNDATION:
Governments seeking to eradicate slavery should take note of the UK’s leadership, and learn from its flaws. The act requires only that companies report on their actions, and imposes few consequences for non-compliance with even this basic requirement. Early reporting shows that few companies have fully complied. There is tremendous opportunity to build upon the UK government’s efforts to crack down on slavery in supply chains. In consultation with business and civil society, legislators in other countries should craft policies that demand meaningful action to combat slavery and address the impacts of business practices on the lives and liberty of workers.
The Modern Slavery Act has been lauded by politicians as a ‘world leader in the fight against modern slavery’. However, the only way to fight such a serious and prolific crime is by setting effective standards for the identification, support and sustained recovery of victims ... The experience of the Helen Bamber Foundation over decades has shown that if victims are not recognised and assisted, they remain vulnerable to further slavery and serious harm.
HOUTAN HOMAYOUNPOUR, TECHNICAL SPECIALIST, INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANISATION:
Globally, there are at least 21 million people in situations of forced labour, and other forms of modern day slavery, generating $150 billion in illicit profits annually. It is in the context of this harsh reality that the UK continues to take a strong stance in the fight against slavery, by passing the Modern Slavery Act at home, as well as ratifying the ILO Protocol on forced labour. These are both giant steps towards the elimination of slavery and helping millions of children, women and men reclaim their freedom and dignity.
Reporting by Timothy Large @timothylarge; editing by Ros Russell