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Modern slavery: recognising it, standing against it

Updated for Anti Slavery Day on Monday 18 October 2021

As the UK emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are reflecting on how things were before and how we’d like life to be different in the future, particularly with regard to our working practices.

As we strive for a fairer world, we should be aware that modern slavery exists, learn how to recognise it, and stand against it.

Victims of modern slavery may have produced the coffee you drank this morning, the clothes you’re wearing today, or the carpet under your feet. The Leicester factory scandal was a reminder that slavery happens close to home, as well as overseas.

The existence of slavery in the UK is highlighted in a report – ‘It Still Happens Here: Fighting UK Slavery in the 2020s’ – from Justice and Care, a charity that works with the police to help rescue victims of slavery and human trafficking.

What is modern slavery?

Campaigning organisation Anti-Slavery International (www.antislavery.org) describes modern slavery as “the severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain.” The Justice and Care report estimates that there are over 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK, while the Global Slavery Index (www.globalslaveryindex.org) puts the figure nearer 136,000.

Anti-Slavery International says: “Modern slavery is all around us, but often just out of sight. People can become entrapped making our clothes, serving our food, picking our crops, working in factories, or working in houses as cooks, cleaners or nannies.”

Many potential victims are children. As a business community, in control of our decisions and ethical practices, we have no excuse not to stand against it.

Why does it happen?

The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) states that the risks of modern slavery are more pronounced:

• When workers have fewer protections through inadequate laws and regulations, weak or non-existent enforcement, and poor business and government accountability
• Where there are high levels of poverty among workers
• Where there is widespread discrimination against certain types of workers, such as women, religious groups and ethnic groups
• Where there is widespread use of migrant or casual workers
• In areas of war or conflict
• In some specific high-risk industries, such as agriculture and construction.

What must we do?

Here in Sandwell we have a local authority praised for its action and good practice in tackling modern slavery. Wendy Sims is Sandwell Council’s Modern Slavery Programme Manager. She attended a virtual Sandwell Business Ambassadors meeting in 2020 to tell us what business owners need to do to combat modern slavery.

One of Wendy’s key points is that it’s important to identify and manage risks in new procurements, as well as to assess existing contracts. CIPS has more information in its report ‘Modern slavery in supply chains’, produced in partnership with Walk Free, an organisation which undertakes research to build the Global Slavery Index – the world’s most comprehensive evidence-based of modern slavery.

Visit Sandwell Council’s How to spot modern slavery page for detailed information on the signs of slavery and human trafficking to look out for.

It is also vital to take action when you suspect modern slavery is taking place. There are several ways to do this listed on the council’s Report it page , along with links and phone numbers. These include the confidential Modern Slavery Helpline (08000 121 700) and through the Unseen app, which is available to download.

Another important factor is training and education: making sure that you and your colleagues are aware of the issue and what to do.

The government has produced fact sheets for a number of sectors, including recruitment, manufacturing and construction.

There are posters and postcards that you can download, print out and distribute to raise awareness of the Modern Slavery Helpline, and there are links to many useful contacts and resources on Sandwell Council’s Modern slavery’ page.

You can make a difference in your everyday life. Remember that our personal buying decisions hold power, and a service that seems extremely cheap (such as in a nail bar or beauty salon) may not reflect the true human cost of providing it. If you go to a hand car wash, it’s helpful to download the Safe Car Wash app from the Clewer Initiative and complete a short survey afterwards about the working conditions of the people who helped you.

On a wider, political level you can sign the ‘Protect, not neglect’ petition from Anti-Slavery International to support the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which aims to guarantee victims the help they need to recover, including somewhere safe to stay, medical treatment and psychological care.

We need to ensure that as business owners and individuals we don’t contribute to the exploitation of vulnerable people. We must all play an active part in stamping out modern slavery.

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