REVEALED: The extent of modern slavery in the UK workforce

REVEALED: The extent of modern slavery in the UK workforce

The number of people reported as potential victims of slavery and human trafficking in the UK has more than doubled in the past three years, according to the National Crime Agency.

Recently, high street names such as Boohoo, Missguided and the embattled Sports Direct, have been identified as not adhering to legal requirements. And, according to new research, businesses that fail to monitor recruitment is to blame.

The research, led by the University of Bath’s School of Management with the University of Sheffield, found that layers of outsourcing, subcontracting and informal hiring of temporary staff are causing victims of modern slavery to become inadvertently hidden within the workforce.

The researchers interviewed business experts, NGOs, trade unions, law firms and the police and concluded that the key issue in tackling modern slavery is understanding the labour supply chain. Networks are often unregulated, and contingent and sometimes forced or trafficked workers are recruited, transported, and supplied to business by third party agents.

One CEO of a UK hotel chain told the researchers: “We have pretty much solved traceability of the food served in our restaurants. I can tell you the farm where the steak on your plate came from, probably even the name of the cow. But we have no idea where the workers came from that work in our kitchens.”

The Sports Direct scandal has also highlighted the exploitation of workers, with three separate modern slavery trials this year finding cases of Polish migrants that were sent to work through recruitment agencies at the notorious Shirebrook warehouse. The Nottinghamshire court found that unscrupulous agencies targeted the homeless, heavy drinkers, people with previous convictions and the unemployed – The Guardian reports.

A separate investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, found fashion chains including River Island and New Look, used British factories that pay workers less than half the minimum wage. Dispatches further claims that online retailers Boohoo and Missguided used suppliers that break employment law.

Just two years ago, Theresa May introduced the Modern Slavery Act, calling the problem it aimed to tackle “the greatest human rights issue of our time”.

Lead author, Professor Andrew Crane, Director of the University of Bath’s Centre for Business, Organisations and Society, said that companies have little hope of detecting modern slavery practices unless they adopt a new approach that focuses specifically on their labour supply chains.

He advises that “they need to be able to trace the origin of their employees in the same way as most now can for their products. To prevent the misery of modern slavery from blighting our workforces companies must apply that same focus to their staff.”

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union, has also spoken on the unfair nature of pay for UK workers, advising that working with unions is one way for organisations to better their treatment of staff. He said: “Too often companies are skimming their profits out of the pockets of their workforce. It is a continuing reminder that for too many working people, work in this country just does not pay.

"That means restoring the collective bargaining arrangements that would see fairer wages negotiated and protected – and working with unions to ensure workers are paid what they deserve.”

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Comments (1)

  • Sir
    Tue, 12 Sep 2017 1:11pm BST
    In tough international markets, how are UK firms to remain competitive and profitable if they are forced pay inflated wage rates to staff ? This kind of employment practice is surely an essential part of any prosperous economy.
    If employers are forced to pay above the going market rate, it has to be passed on in the form of rising prices - so nobody benefits.
    The only alternative would be unacceptable lower returns for shareholders, which is likely to have a negative effect on investment, triggering unemployment and a spiral of decline.

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