Last reviewed 13 June 2016

Recent months have seen an increase in stories in the media about so-called modern slavery. Earlier this year, for example, the trial of the owner of Kozee Sleep, a bed manufacturer in West Yorkshire, heard how up to 42 men were kept in a two-bedroom house and lived on scraps of food. They were reportedly paid only £10 a day in return for working long hours. Legislation is planned to toughen up our response to such crimes, but Gudrun Limbrick asks: what can businesses learn from the problem?

In the UK, there was a 47% increase in cases of slavery reported between 2012 and 2013. Home Office figures put the number of people kept in slavery in the UK as being between 10,000 and 13,000. Modern slavery can take many forms and be found in different situations, for example, domestic situations in which someone (sometimes wives or other relatives) is kept in servitude or sexually exploited. Criminal gangs may forcibly recruit vulnerable people.

In the workplace, there are basically two forms of modern slavery. The first is debt bondage, in which individuals are forced to work to pay off debts that they have little hope of ever paying off. Debts may be accrued through having to “rent” machinery or equipment they need to do the work or accommodation, for example. The second form is forced labour, in which people are made to work for little or no pay under the threat of deportation, violence or something else that compels them to stay.

The Modern Slavery Act

The official response to the increased profile of modern slavery has been the Modern Slavery Act, which came into force in July 2015. It includes a range of changes, such as increased sentences for those convicted, greater protection for the victims of slavery wanting to bring charges and the powers to seize the assets of perpetrators to compensate their victims.

Many, although by no means all, reported incidents of modern-day slavery appear to be related to human trafficking, as people are brought to this country, perhaps promised jobs and a better life, and then held as slaves with the threat of being exposed as illegal immigrants to the authorities. They are particularly vulnerable to being exploited in this way as they may have no support network in this country, may not know the language, and may not always be aware that they have any other options.

One of the new powers of the Modern Slavery Act is to put the onus onto large companies to eradicate slavery from their supply chain. Thus, businesses with a turnover of £36 million must now state publicly what measures they are taking to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from the companies from which they buy goods.

This is not an easy task as, by its very nature, slavery is hidden from public view. Nonetheless, it is useful to force this on large companies as it makes them think about the issue and keep the profile of slavery high in the corporate world.

Many of us complain that we get “stuck” in jobs we do not want to be in for financial or other reasons, or that our employers pay us too little and demand too much from us. Companies, of course, want to get as much out of employees as they can without paying them any more than they have to. Of course, we all wish our employees would turn up every day on time and try to come up with more and more ways to reduce absenteeism and encourage constant attendance.

None of this is actual slavery in the legal sense. Even if it means financial ruin for that person, an individual still has the option of walking away from a job. Likewise, an employer will still accept an employee’s resignation despite the size of the loss this represents to the company.

Public awareness

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the high profile of slavery issues in the media have made the public much more aware of the possibility of slavery. This can only be a good thing if we are to eradicate actual practices of genuine slavery and bring justice for the victims. However, it also has a potential knock-on effect, which is to make the public aware of slavery in even the law-abiding modern workplace.

Companies are thus under scrutiny and must ensure that how they treat their employees comes nowhere near to being seen as exploitation by a public that has a heightened awareness of slavery issues.

So what can the law-abiding workplace learn from our new awareness of the existence of slavery and exploitation? One of the main areas that can potentially be seen as exploitation is where employers compel employees to make payments to them that reduce the size of their take-home pay. For example, where an employee has to pay for accommodation or board, or the use of vehicles, machinery and other tools, clothing and materials.

It is important that these payments are affordable in relation to the anticipated salary and that any upfront large payments are not such that, at the rate of pay earned, the individual has no realistic chance of paying them back.

While we certainly do not aim to enslave people, some of these less generous practices could be seen as exploitation akin to debt bondage. Our new awareness of slavery gives us all the opportunity to “spring clean” our own practices and ensure that they cannot be improved.

In an ideal world, employees would have some choice in where they source these items so that they can shop around and find the best option for them. Thus, for example, there would be other places to stay in the locality that may (or may not) be more affordable.

Modern slavery has come about because there are vulnerable people and the temptation to exploit them for financial gain was too much to resist for some unscrupulous businesses. The vast majority of businesses have sufficient moral grounding to never even consider exploiting people in this way. However, it is true to say that even the best of us can sometimes cut corners, perhaps charge a little too much or pay lower amounts in order to cut costs when times are hard. When so much attention is on the evils of slavery, it is important that none of the rest of us find ourselves in the position where we too can be accused of exploitation.

It came as a shock to many of us that slavery still existed in the modern world and that, most shocking of all, it exists right here in the UK. However, recent years have demonstrated that it certainly does exist — in farming, manufacturing, hospitality and in the supply chains of some of our biggest retail names.

No longer can we brush it off as something that only exists in the murky worlds of prostitution and drugs. While large companies have a legal duty to make efforts to rid their own supply chains of slavery and trafficking, we all have a moral duty to ensure that all slavery is reported when we see it.