A new law: tackling slavery in supply chains

Ruth Chambers

A wide coalition of civil society groups is today (26 March) celebrating the passing of a new law which will require businesses to tell the public what they are doing to eradicate slavery and forced labour from their supply chains.
The law is part of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which received Royal Assent today and which will also establish an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and new rights for victims of modern slavery.
Modern slavery is closer to home than you might think, with domestic businesses as diverse as nail bars, a bed factory and a picture frame manufacturer all recently found or suspected to have been involved in human trafficking or forced labour. As if that wasn’t shocking enough, there is mounting evidence on human rights abuses in overseas supply chains, with the haunting images of the Rana Plaza building collapse and child labour exploitation never far from our minds.
The first step to tackling the heinous crime of slavery is transparency. As consumers we cannot take action unless we know who makes our clothes, who grows our food and who assembles our technology.
The requirement on businesses to make their supply chains more transparent received cross-party support during its Parliamentary passage, although its initial absence from the bill was baffling and denied it vital discussion time and scrutiny in the House of Commons.
Following pressure and evidence from many MPs and civil society groups, the government included the supply chains provision at Report in the House of Commons. Thanks to several excellent debates in the House of Lords, the provision was strengthened and clarified. Many Peers championed the importance of the public being able to gain easy access to businesses’ statements on slavery in their supply chains. Particular thanks are due to Lord Alton for his leadership and to Baroness Kennedy of Cradley, the Bishop of Derby, Baroness Mobarik and Baroness Young of Hornsey for their work to strengthen the new law.
The campaign for greater transparency in supply chains was also supported by many prominent businesses such as Unilever and Ikea, as well as members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. Leading investors such as Hermes and the Alliance Trust praised the law for giving certainty and clarity to businesses. Church Leaders were also supportive, as was the Designate Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland.
Whilst the new law is definitely one to be celebrated, not all of the lessons from the implementation of similar legislation in California were learnt. Many felt that the reporting framework for businesses should have included minimum requirements rather than voluntary guidelines, and the absence of a central online repository for reports was a key omission, although we are told that the Home Office is working to address this.
A consultation on this part of the bill runs until 7 May, and regulations will, in due course, be laid before Parliament to set the threshold above which businesses will be required to comply with the new law. Both these processes offer further opportunities to engage with government.
This may be the first dedicated UK legislation to deal with modern slavery in general and slavery in supply chains in particular but given the scale and deep-seated nature of the problem it is unlikely to be the last. I think that we can take considerable heart from the wide backing that transparency in supply chains received and the knowledge that we will be able to draw on this both in taking the new law forward and in any future law-making processes.
Ruth Chambers is an independent consultant and advisor who co-ordinated the Transparency in Supply Chains Coalition from October 2014 to March 2015.

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