Companies may be inadvertently participating in modern slavery because their vetting practices are not up to scratch, research published today has cautioned.
The study from the Universities of Sheffield and Bath – which entailed interviews with experts in business, non-governmental organisations, trade unions, law firms and the police – found that organisations were failing to thoroughly monitor outsourced recruitment, subcontracting or informal hiring practices.
Most incidences of forced labour identified by the study involved workers who were not part of the business’s core workforce and may only have been on site for a matter of days.
“Companies have little hope of detecting modern slavery practices unless they adopt a new approach that focuses specifically on their labour supply chains; they need to be able to trace the origin of their employees in the same way as most now can for their products,” said Professor Andrew Crane, director of the University of Bath’s Centre for Business, Organisations and Society and the study’s lead author.
Dr Genevieve LeBaron from the University of Sheffield’s politics department, the study’s co-author, added: “Leading UK companies are starting to belatedly wake up to the fact that their existing systems for detecting worker abuse simply are not fit for purpose for uncovering forced labour. But as new initiatives emerge, the critical factor determining their success will be whether they meaningfully address the labour supply chains that feed their business.”
The research warned that those caught up in modern slavery could have been subjected to highly exploitative practices, such as having their passport withheld, being forced to work for little or no pay or having to pay for the job in the first place.
By contrast, the researchers also discovered that many businesses were increasingly aware of the background of their products, but were still uninformed about the background of their staff.
“We have pretty much solved traceability of the food served in our restaurants,” explained a chief executive of a UK hotel chain who took part in the study. “I can tell you the farm where the steak on your plate came from; probably even the name of the cow. But we have no idea where the workers came from that work in our kitchens.”
The National Crime Agency warned last month that the scale of modern slavery was “far larger than anyone had previously thought”, while statistics released by the agency in April revealed that 3,805 people were referred for help in 2016, up from 1,745 people in 2013.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires all UK companies bigger than a certain size to publish a yearly statement outlining what they have done to stamp out slavery in their supply chains. However, a study published by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply last week revealed that a third (34 per cent) of companies that fell within the legislation’s remit had published no such statement.
In January, the government appointed Sir David Metcalf as director of labour market enforcement. He is currently reviewing the effectiveness of measures designed to tackle illegal workplace practices, including modern slavery.