By: David Picton, Senior Vice President of Sustainability, Alcumus

Slavery may feel like a topic that should be confined to the history books, but unfortunately it is a very real issue in the present for UK businesses. Whilst seemingly impossible to believe, estimates suggest that there are more people affected by modern slavery across the world now than were caught up in the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. Modern slavery is a broad term and, while forced labour is its most common form, there are many wider abuses that cause deep concern. These include failure to pay the minimum wage, depriving workers of facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink, demanding excessive hours, domestic servitude, harassment, assault, and unpaid wages.

Quite apart from the human misery associated with abusive working practices, forced labour, low rates of pay and associated poor safety conditions, there are significant penalties and legal responsibilities for companies trading in the modern economy. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act has been in force for six years now, and leading companies recognise that this is a clear and unavoidable responsibility for them to check what is happening across the network of their supply chain. It needs their attention and action if they are not to be complicit in allowing modern slavery to prosper.

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Expectations and pressures on companies to tackle modern slavery are increasing, driven by a greater understanding of the scale and scope of the issue and policy debates. However, despite the heightened focus, confusion remains as to what modern slavery is, how to spot it, and what actions and remedial steps should be taken once it has been identified. Nevertheless, those who fail to tackle it are rightly being identified, suffering losses and damage to trust in their reputations.

Exposure to exploitation and modern slavery is a very real risk for vulnerable workers throughout the UK and across international supply chains. With intricate trading relationships spanning the globe, there are risks of compliance gaps for businesses without the right processes, checks and information visibility in place. The modern trading economy makes this an incredibly complex issue, with challenges around data visibility, operations across international boundaries, effective communication, on-site inspections, and effective audits. However, it is a fundamental responsibility for supply chain directors, operational specialists, and senior leadership teams to hold suppliers accountable for the actions needed to ensure that modern slavery is not happening.

Whilst clearly an issue for larger companies, smaller companies should be just as focused on eradicating modern slavery. Smaller businesses which cannot give assurances, demonstrate compliance, and explain their risk management processes face the potential of contract termination or being locked out of new tenders. Primary research this year from Alcumus showed that:

  • A third (34%) of SMEs don’t understand the legal requirements the Modern Slavery Act 2015 places on organisations
  • 64% of SMEs don’t have a company policy on their approach to modern slavery
  • More than half (56%) of SMEs don’t have a specific person responsible for modern slavery

(Alcumus research May 2021 with 505 UK SMEs)

The complex nature of datapoints across extended global supply chains means that data visibility is crucial to have a coherent approach and establish ‘one true view’ of modern slavery risks. Through real-time insights and digitised manual processes to connect people, processes and data, a technology-led approach can help to understand what drives risk. With insight, streamlined processes and continuous improvement, organisations can drive greater control and increased visibility.

All businesses – whether large enterprises or SMEs – need to work together to eradicate any cases of forced labour, unsafe or abusive working practices and modern slavery. This is a complex issue, which no business can solve on its own. Indeed, it’s only by working together in mutual partnerships, supported by technology, that organisations can tackle this problem and meet the expectations of their customers and society.

About the author:

David Picton is SVP of ESG and Sustainability at Alcumus. Now working with customers across multiple sectors and specialist organisations, he is a former Chief Sustainability Officer and was an original Board member of the Supply Chain Sustainability School. David also achieved the Queen’s Enterprise Award for Sustainable Development and presented on the benefits of responsible business to the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development.