The UK Tried to Stop Modern Slavery. Six Years On, Zero Companies Have Been Penalised.

The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 has been deemed a ‘failure’ by a report from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
February 25, 2021, 12:15am
The UK Tried to Stop Modern Slavery. Five Years Later, Not One Company Has Been Penalised.
A man attends a protest in support of Uighur Muslims over ongoing human rights violations in China's Xinjiang autonomous region, in London last October. Photo: Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A supposedly landmark UK law designed to help companies eliminate modern slavery and exploitation from their supply chains has been deemed a failure by a human rights organisation.

A new report from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has reviewed the UK’s Modern Slavery Act over the six years since its introduction, concluding that the act “has failed in its stated intentions.”

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Many companies have been criticised for the exploitative labour in their supply chains. In 2020, a human rights coalition found that one in five fashion brands were complicit in utilising cotton from Uighur forced labour camps in Xinjiang, China. It claimed brands such as Gap, Adidas, Muji, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein had through suppliers sourced cotton from government-run detention centres, or from suppliers linked to the camps.

The International Labour Organisation estimated in 2016 that around 40.3 million people were in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage. It also found that 1 in 4 victims of modern slavery are children. 

Last year, a VICE World News report found that many brands sold in the UK, such as Gap and Victoria Secret, were linked to a Sri Lankan clothing factory that had been the epicentre of a major coronavirus outbreak. Workers in the factory also spoke of inadequate working conditions.

The Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015 to force companies to be more transparent about their supply chains, requiring organisations to submit a statement each year stating that there was no human trafficking involved in production lines. But companies could also submit a statement saying they had taken no steps to address modern slavery risks and still technically be in compliance with the law. The Modern Slavery Act has no criminal penalty associated with it, except for risk of an injunction or administrative penalty (such as being excluded from government contracts) for non-compliance. 

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Today’s report, entitled “Modern Slavery Act: Five years of reporting,” found that over the six years, 40 percent of UK companies covered by the law never submitted a report on supply chains looking to the risks of modern slavery. Not a single company has faced repercussions for non-compliance with the law. 

As a result, the report claims that while the Modern Slavery Act increased awareness of slavery and forced labour within supply chains, it failed to make any improvement to the vast majority of companies’ policies, practices or performances. 

Thulsi Narayanasamy, senior labour rights lead at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “The UK government said they will tackle the complicity of British companies in Uighur forced labour by enforcing the Modern Slavery Act. But the weakness of the Act means this would do little or nothing to protect victims of forced labour in China or elsewhere around the world.”

“Tens of millions of workers are in forced labour – working in mines, on farms, in factories; to produce the everyday goods in our cupboards and wardrobes,” Narayanasamy continued. “Bad businesses must be compelled to root this out of their supply chains.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office said: “Through the Modern Slavery Act 2015, we became the first country in the world to require large businesses to report on the steps they have taken to tackle modern slavery in their operations and global supply chains.”

“This landmark legislation has driven a change in business culture, spotlighting modern slavery risks on boardroom agendas and within the international human rights community,” they continued. “We are committed to going even further and will be strengthening the Modern Slavery Act to cover large public bodies and introducing financial penalties for those who fail to report”