Globally the number of slaves is expected to rise as millions of people become victims of unjust and corrupt schemes leaving them exposed to inhumane conditions and the loss of dignity.
As we enter a new decade, with a new majority government having formed, I thought it useful to recap the Conservative’s response to modern slavery so far and ask,
What can we expect now?
Modern slavery is recognised as one of the greatest evils in our society. The introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 demonstrates that this issue is being taken seriously across the political spectrum. The Act consolidates and simplifies existing offences under one act - it enhances the courts’ power to punish perpetrators and protect victims. It is ground-breaking in that it requires businesses making over £36 million to disclose whether there is modern slavery in their supply chain.
The previous Conservative government was dedicated to ensuring the Act’s effectiveness by requesting an independent review in July 2018 to assess where action could be improved. Subsequent to the findings of the Independent Review the government announced a 10 million pound investment into creating a cutting-edge Policy and Evidence Centre for Modern Slavery and Human Rights. Can we expect the new government headed by Boris Johnson to address the failures of his predecessors, and increase efforts to end this societal evil? In a word, no.
So what would the new government have to do, in order to respond adequately to the threat of modern slavery?
The Modern Slavery Act is far from perfect and has come under intense scrutiny. Arguably, it has ‘failed to deliver the transformational change that many of us hoped for'. Perhaps Boris’ new government should begin the renewed drive to end slavery, so desperately needed, by addressing the Act’s failings found by the Independent review.
For example, the Act does not go far enough in protecting victims. Prior to a High Court ruling in April 2019, victims, once formally identified, would only be given certain statutory support, such as a weekly allowance and safe house accommodation, for 45 days. After this they were released back into the community, ‘dropped off a cliff edge’, after incomprehensible suffering. A huge reliance was therefore placed on organisations such as Migrant Help and Hestia to step in and provide community support in lieu of government provisions.
The fact that this policy was approved is highly concerning, however the court ruling of the ‘nonsensical’ time limit as causing ‘irreparable harm to very vulnerable individuals’ is a positive step. The government have now assured the Court that support to victims in future will be based on a needs-based system rather than an arbitrary time limit. However, it is fair to say that NGO and charity and support is still necessary, regardless of these recent changes to the law.
Protection and support for victims is essential in stopping the cycle of slavery.
Those left vulnerable are more likely to be trafficked and enslaved once more. This continued support of victims requires a huge increase in health and social care spending. This is due to a number of reasons.
- more social workers are needed to deal with the increased number of victims brought forward by the National Referral Mechanism, the framework for identifying victims.
- Additionally, increased funding to social housing and local NHS Trusts will be required to deal with the complex issues a victim of slavery faces once freed. It may be advisable to offer victims specific individual funding in order to break the cycle of slavery.
The current government have pledged to spend 1 billion extra per year on social care but in comparison with Labour’s 3.5 billion, it suggests that this issue is not of high importance to the current Prime Minister.
Victims do not have adequate access to justice in order for the Act to be used against perpetrators.
Since 2012 cuts in legal aid have been destroying the justice system. Victims of slavery will find it hard to access legal advice due to the reduction in high street firms, law centres and citizens advice bureau. Furthermore, as a result of the government hoping to save money many rural and town centre courts have now been closed causing victims to travel for miles. How can we expect a victim of modern slavery, who often will not speak English and has no financial support, to travel across the country? Other political parties pledged to reverse cuts made to legal aid, perhaps the new Conservative government should consider this idea if they are serious about ending slavery and upholding fundamental human rights.
Finally, the component of the Act which has potential to reduce modern slavery on a global scale i.e. the requirement of businesses to release a statement in line with Act, does not go far enough. Part 6 of the Act has the ability to harness consumer pressure. It requires businesses to provide information on their modern slavery policies and due diligence undertaken to ensure their supply chain is free of human trafficking and slavery. If the business fails to ensure to meet the standard required this information will be public and may affect how consumers perceive the business and therefore its profit.
However, it has been found that several businesses have disclosed less than satisfactory reports with no effect on their profits.
This is likely due to the fact that consumers are not kept well informed. Moreover, businesses can opt to not comply with the Act, by simply stating no steps have been taken under the Act. No punishment results from this statement.
Modern Slavery, and the policies required to fight it, does not seem high on the political agenda for Boris Johnson’s government. This is demonstrated by the lack of funding provided to the public services vital in helping end slavery and protect those suffering as a result of it. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that the new government will have much time to dedicate to the issue of modern slavery due to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Brexit in itself poses a great threat to the rights of migrant workers who, already facing hostility, may be forced into the informal economy ‘where criminal gangs and unscrupulous firms await to exploit them.’
So what can be done to ensure victims are given the protection they need?
Although the newly formed government does not seem to hold the eradication of modern slavery as a high priority, there are a number of charities and organisations who fight against this evil every day.
Organisations such as Their Voice bridge the gap between what our government should be doing and what support is practically offered, and gives the victims of modern slavery a feeling of hope when all else is lost.
Support these local organisations
Watch out for the signs of slavery in your community
Boycott any company who does not go far enough in ensuring their supply chain is slavery free