Slavery continues in the UK: Is the Modern Slavery Act 2015 fit for purpose?

In the UK, modern slavery "hides in plain sight in our towns and cities, our fields and factories. It reaches into every corner of our lives – in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the services we pay for." (Theresa May, 11 June 2019)

Conservative estimates of the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK is put at 10 to 13,000; other organisations suggest those numbers could be considerably higher. In 2015, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (the “Act”) came into force to tackle such acts, in addition to providing the police with greater powers, the Act placed some general obligations on supply chain management of corporate organisations where they reached certain financial thresholds.

UK’s largest modern slavery action what happened?

Police have quashed the UK’s biggest slavery syndicate, which was trafficking and exploiting vulnerable individuals from Poland. Eight members of the gang behind the syndicate were sentenced to imprisonment for a total of 60 years between them following two trials at Birmingham Crown Court this year. Here, we look at the case, the effectiveness of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and proposed changes to the legislation.

In this recent case, victims, who in many cases had financial difficulties, were lured to the UK from Poland with the promise of a better life with a well-paid job. However, once they arrived in the UK, they were forced to open bank accounts by the gang, who stole the majority of their wages. The victims were forced into farm work or manual labour for as little as 50 pence per hour. Working twelve hour days, instead of a wage of around £400 per week, victims received substantially less than this and, often, most victims only earned £20 per week. The victims lived in terrible conditions, often beaten and threatened with violence by gang members.

The Investigation

Police were able to uncover the financial and identity fraud committed by the individuals in the gang following the intervention of Hope for Justice, an charity which ran a soup kitchen, who noticed the number of Polish nationals who started to use their service and became concerned. The charity encouraged victims to talk to the police, commencing the downfall of the organised slavery ring. The charity believes over 400 individuals were exploited.

The investigation was extensive, covering 650,000 lines of telephone data, 250 different bank accounts, more than 3,000 pieces of evidence such as bank statements and benefits, 1,500 witness statements, and statements from victims.

While investigating, the police secured 10 interim Slavery & Trafficking Risk Orders (STROs) against the defendants. However, two breached the conditions and were sentenced for doing so, making them the first to be sentenced to imprisonment under the Slavery & Trafficking Risk Orders legislation. STROs will be imposed upon their release, preventing them from arranging travel or employment for anyone else for nine years.

The value of the complainants' financial exploitation was £380,000; however, if the wages and bank accounts of all victims were included, this would amount to over £2 million between June 2012 and October 2017. This highlights the extensive nature of the gang’s criminal activity.

The defendants were condemned as they showed a lack of remorse for their actions and did not recognise the severity of the situation. Detective Chief Inspector Nick Dale, the head of the police’s Gangs and Organised Crime Unit, stated the defendants were exploiting up to 250 individuals at one time. During the five-month trial, 66 brave victims provided statements or gave evidence.

Judge Stacey said the slavery network was the "most ambitious, extensive and prolific" uncovered in the UK and the "hard truth is that the practice continues, here in the UK, often hiding in plain sight". This was the UK’s largest modern slavery prosecution and is quite possibly the largest of its kind throughout Europe.

Modern Slavery Act 2015 and its review

The Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015: Final Report ("the Final Report"), chaired by Frank Field, was presented to Parliament in May 2019.

The Act was introduced in an attempt to tackle modern slavery, to clarify the existing slavery and human trafficking offences and increase the penalties for committing these crimes. However, it was clear that there was a need to provide measures which could disrupt supply chain activities and so the Act introduced measures which corporations are to adopt.

Supply Chain Transparency

The Act requires companies which supply goods and services with an annual turnover of more than £36 million to provide an annual modern slavery statement explaining the steps they are taking to ensure slavery and trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains and any part of its business, or, where they are unable to do so, to provide a statement that no such steps have been taken (the "section 54 requirement").

Some of the jobs the victims undertook in this case were within warehouses, farms and poultry factories that played a role within the supply chains of major supermarkets, highlighting that major companies remain unaware of what is happening within their supply chains despite their own Modern Slavery Statement.

The Final Report, however, was highly critical that the Act lacks teeth, and stated that around 40% of companies are not complying with the Act, and makes 80 recommendations, including:

  • The transparency in supply chain statement should be extended to public sector bodies;
  • A requirement for companies to refer to their modern slavery statement in their annual returns;
  • Removal of the ability for corporate bodies to state that they have not implemented modern slavery measures;
  • The matters to be set out in the modern slavery statement to no longer be optional so that the six areas to be covered become mandatory (along with statutory guidance to be made available on what information organisations are expected to provide in each of the six areas);
  • The legislation should be amended to require companies to consider the entirety of their supply chains and where they fail to do so should be required to explain why it has not done so and state what steps it intends to take in the future;
  • Businesses should be required to have a named, designated board member who is personally accountable for the production of the modern slavery statement; and
  • The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner should monitor compliance of businesses under section 54 of the Act with Government taking a graduated approach to strengthening the measures used to tackle non-compliance i.e. warnings, fines as a percentage of turnover and director disqualifications. Such measures would be introduced over the next few years and action taken by an enforcement body, which would be self-funded through fines levied.

The Government estimates that thousands of individuals are still in modern slavery within the UK, demonstrating there is a long way for the Act to go in eradicating slavery and trafficking within the UK. The Government is currently reviewing the recommendations of the Final Report and we shall provide an update when it responds.

What is the likely impact for businesses?

Whilst, on the face of it, the recommendations appear to have the potential to further impact those larger organisations reaching the threshold (for example in carrying out further due diligence), for those not reaching the threshold there could be increasing pressure (and likely monitoring) from its customers through more robust and onerous contractual provisions in supply agreements to demonstrate what actions they are taking.

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