The modern slave trade is now the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, estimated to be worth more than £87 billion. There are more victims of slavery today than in the complete history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In the UK alone, the number of victims of slavery identified in 2013 rose 47 percent from 2012 [Slaves are living and working in Devon today, says former MP. Read more.]
The Modern Slavery Bill (see our earlier blog), which the government intends to pass before the general election, is aimed at enabling law enforcement to combat the problem more effectively. Existing legislation is consolidated and simplified within the Act, with the intention of providing greater clarity and focus for those prosecuting traffickers and others involved. The Bill proposes harsher punishments, such as increasing the maximum sentence available for offenders to life imprisonment, whilst introducing crucial new tools to restrict the activity of people already convicted of modern slavery offences. Police powers to recover the proceeds of modern slavery crime have also been extended in the hope that this will also deter future offenders.
Working in the interests of victims, the Bill will also establish the creation of an independent Anti-slavery Commissioner to help drive improvements and coordinate law enforcement response. To help combat the international element of the modern slave trade, new powers will be introduced to enable both police and Border Force officers to act when human trafficking or forced labour is suspected on board vessels at sea.
There has been a great deal of exposure in recent months regarding the private sector connection to modern slavery. Car washes, the prawn industry and the rise of slavery in Wales have all emphasised the issue of modern slavery in the supply chains of big businesses. The Government has committed to working collaboratively with business to utilise the Modern Slavery Bill to help combat modern slavery in supply chains. In October 2013 the Companies Act was amended to ensure all listed companies report information about human rights issues. In 2016, the EU directive on non-financial reporting will come into force, extending the existing UK framework requiring companies to include even more detailed information on their supply chains. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has also announced its intention to work with the British Retail Consortium in developing guidelines for business on tackling modern slavery in supply chains, aiming to provide professional development, guidance and training for those involved in supply chain management.
Some campaigners argue that a voluntary, business-led approach for corporate responsibility is not enough and that legislation is required to tackle significant problems like modern slavery. The joint committee that analysed the draft bill called for quoted companies to reveal any links to forced labour and also to assign an individual with responsibility at board level. Frank Field, chairman of the committee, said the lack of measures "effectively to counter slavery in companies' supply chains is such a serous omission that parliament must do its best to rectify". But, despite these calls, the government insists that a voluntary approach is preferable and has refused to include references to supply chains in the Bill.
While increased public focus and new legislation will undoubtedly help concentrate the effort to combat modern slavery, the responsibility of businesses to take voluntary action over and above legal requirements may not be enough.
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