Modern slavery affects thousands of vulnerable people. We all owe them a duty of care
By Brian Cairney
Britain finally abolished slavery in 1833 after a long and bitter campaign and it is a sad indictment of modern times that, 185 years later, the issue of forcing someone to work and act against his or her will is still an issue in this country.
But it is.
And it is, if anything, becoming an increasing problem despite the unceasing efforts of the police and other agencies to prevent it. The Home Office estimates that there may be as many as 13,000 victims in the UK. 270 were rescued from slavery in Scotland alone last year.
It often, to our shame, takes place in plain sight, in takeaways, hotels, nail bars and so on. The Church of England has just this month (June) asked churchgoers to help spot criminals involved in modern slavery in car washes by using a new phone app.
One of the biggest users of temporary labour in Scotland is the food and drinks industry, which employs thousands of people, often on a seasonal basis. In general terms, it adheres carefully to best practice in its labour supply chain.
As the problem increases, however, the need for vigilance also becomes more pressing, since the brand damage which could be inflicted on some of Scotland’s most highly-regarded companies in the event of breach could be incalculable.
Many household names, especially in the drinks industry, use the same suppliers for their labour requirements, and providers such as Brightwork work under a Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority licence.
GLAA standards cover health and safety, accommodation, pay, transport and training, and providers are checked to ensure that they are fit to hold a licence and that tax, National Insurance and VAT regulations are met.
The system means that workers receive fair treatment and the pay and conditions to which they are entitled. Industry standards are raised and consumers can be assured that their produce comes from an ethical environment.
So, if some service providers are not squeaky clean and are cutting corners, then the end users have an obligation to ensure that the correct standards are being met. A litmus test is the cost of labour: if it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
The figures are fairly straightforward. The National Living Wage was increased to £7.83 in April this year. It costs about £10.26 for a supplier to service this rate. If the supplier is offering workers for less than this cost to the end users, then alarm bells should ring.
Most responsible companies are keenly aware of the human misery caused by modern slavery and are keen to suppress it by whatever means possible. But sectors such as the drinks industry outsource many of their activities.
It is very difficult to monitor agencies which supply labour to sub-contracted or third-party concerns, but cost remains a sure indicator. If labour is unrealistically cheap, then it is a sure sign that some benefits, to put it mildly, are being withheld.
It can be relatively easy for criminal gangs to infiltrate the supply chain and it is incumbent upon everyone involved to be vigilant and cascade their obligations down the chain. Many big employers are now making it a condition of contracts that suppliers take positive steps to address the problem.
It is another, additional burden for already heavily-regulated sectors to shoulder, but we should never forget that the victims come from among the most vulnerable in society, often minority or socially-excluded groups.
We all owe them a duty of care.