Last updated: December 2015
New Modern Slavery Act
Many campaigners are yet to be convinced that this new Act will have the desired effect. Tim Hunt investigates.
The Modern Slavery Act will force companies to publicly report on the steps they are taking to ensure there is no slavery or forced labour in their supply chains. It has the potential to have a big impact on the clothing sector. The Ethical Trading Initiative described the legislation as a “game-changer”.
Karen Bradley, the Home Office Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, said in a statement:
“The act will mean that major businesses will, for the first time, be expected to be transparent about the action they are taking to address modern slavery in their global supply chains."
“Consumers, businesses and investors will now have valuable information to inform them on the companies they are supporting – and shoppers can make more informed decisions at the checkout. Businesses risk damaging their reputation, or their bottom line, if they don’t take action to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains.”
Huge numbers of bonded labourers
The legislation has the potential to have a positive impact on millions of workers all over the world.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that almost 21 million people are currently working in some form of forced labour, including many in the clothing sector.
Research from the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability, and the Ethical Trading Initiative found that 71% of companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some point in their supply chains.
Jane Tate, from campaign group Homeworkers Worldwide, is in no doubt that modern slavery is a big issue in the clothing sector :
“There has been a lot of campaigning and work done attempting to address this issue, including company projects and an ETI project, but to our best knowledge the problem of forced labour still remains endemic in the industry.”
She believes that, in the Tamil Nadu region alone, 200,000 young women and girls are working under conditions of forced or bonded labour. Many are producing cotton jersey (t-shirt fabric) clothing for export to the UK.
Samantha Maher from Labour Behind the Label agrees and singles out another vulnerable group that the legislation could help – migrants.
“Lots of migrants are in forced labour especially in Malaysia, where people are having their passports taken, as well as in the middle east in places like Jordan and Egypt.”
Campaigners yet to be convinced
However some labour rights campaigners are yet to be convinced that the legislation will have the desired effect in improving working conditions.
Samantha from Labour Behind the Label feels that reporting alone can’t help and the new legislation raises a number of questions.
“How they are reporting and how it [the information] is used still appears to be undecided. There is an assumption that NGOs will use the information to expose poor practice but capacity is limited so this won’t be easy without resources and a clear process. We also wonder how we will know if the reporting is accurate.”
Jane from Homeworkers Worldwide concurs. She told Ethical Consumer:
“It is very hard to predict what impact the Modern Slavery Act will have. The difficulty is that [the companies] have to report what they are doing but someone will have to sift through the ethical spin to assess whether what they report is really having an impact on the ground, whether they are really focusing their efforts on where the problems are etc.
Holding companies to account on this will be difficult, and will be a massive job for campaigners, NGOs and activists. “
But she also has more fundamental concerns.
“The current rhetoric on modern slavery in general is that modern slavery (including forced and bonded labour) risks being seen as a distinct issue and treated quite separately from other forms of exploitation. It is as though we can isolate a few criminal elements, get rid of those and the rest of the industry can carry on as normal.”
Meanwhile TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said that this legislation is just the start and that, “The Government should build on the Modern Slavery Act and ratify the ILO Forced Labour Protocol immediately.”
This would mean not only to criminalise and prosecute forced labour, but also to take more effective measures to prevent forced labour and provide victims with protection and access to remedies, including compensation.
The way forward
Despite their criticisms, campaigners are clear that the Act is a step in the right direction.
Samantha from Labour Behind the Label:
“Companies often have no idea where they are buying from so they may get a better grip of supply chains. The act is also forcing the issue up from CSR to board level due to its legally binding nature.”
This is a view shared by Jane at Homeworkers Worldwide, “Whilst we don’t think it will, in practice, deliver much transparency, the principle of companies taking responsibility for what goes on in global chains is an important one, and making this a legal requirement is a starting point for pushing for greater responsibility and accountability in the future.”