What is to become of the new Modern Slavery Bill?

10 February 2015

The Need

The Global Slavery Index 2014 reported that over 35 million people are trapped in slavery across the world today. Modern slavery takes multiple forms including forced labour and human trafficking, and is found across the economic sphere in domestic servitude, the sex trade, on farms, building sites and in factories. Many work in terrible conditions for extremely long hours, for little or no pay, and are vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse. The National Crime Agency suggests that the number of victims of trafficking in the UK rose by 22 per cent from 2012 to 2013 and these numbers are continually on the rise globally as well. In the UK, around 60% of children rescued from trafficking have gone missing from social services . Those working as foreign domestic workers on a tied visa (about 15,000 each year), meaning that they are tied to one employer for the duration of their stay, are unable to leave their houses unaccompanied or find alternative jobs to escape abusive employers without becoming criminalised. Clearly our systems for protecting victims of slavery are just not up to scratch.

At present, there are three pieces of legislation on slavery and trafficking that are scattered, impractical and therefore difficult to use. As a result, there were only 8 convictions of human trafficking in the UK in 2011. It is high time that the law was on the side of victims of slavery and trafficking and so the new Modern Slavery Bill, has been hugely welcomed as it is pivotal to ensuring victims of abuse are found, cared for and receive justice for crimes committed against them.


Summary and Achievements of the Bill

The Modern Slavery Bill, which was introduced to the House of Commons on the 10th June 2014, aims to ‘consolidate offences relating to trafficking and slavery’, introduce an independent Anti-Slavery commissioner, provide greater protection for victims and improve the prospects for prosecuting perpetrators. The Bill will introduce provisions to defend those that have been forced to commit crimes as victims of slavery or exploitation (Clause 45) as well as to seize property from offenders to use as compensation for victims (Clause 10). It includes the creation of ‘Child Trafficking Advocates’ (Clause 48) to represent and support any child that has been a victim of human trafficking, and the ‘Presumption about age’ Clause (50) means that when the age of a victim is unknown, but could be under 18, they must be treated as that until known otherwise.

Perhaps the largest breakthrough in the Bill is the attempt to improve transparency in supply chains (Part 6). This will require companies to make a statement detailing steps taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place within the company or supply chains, or that no such actions have been taken. Frank Field, Labour MP said that ‘a little over a year ago, there was never any thought of a modern slavery bill; that’s the distance we have travelled’. With the inclusion of this clause, the UK will become only the 4th government in the world to make an effort to address modern slavery in supply chains (following the United States, Brazil and Australia) according to the Global Slavery Index (download report here).


Not Far Enough

However, the Bill is accused of not going far enough. Whilst setting out to tackle global slavery, the Bill is much more focused on domestic cases, with global slavery as an afterthought only mentioned in reference to supply chains. Baroness Cox, along with others, have proposed multiple amendments to tackle this such as including a statement in the Bill acknowledging that ‘modern slavery is a global issue requiring a global solution and which commit[s] the United Kingdom to assist with exposing and tackling it wherever it exists’ as well as reports to be completed by embassies on the prevalence of slavery in their respective countries, and an annual report on global slavery.

Furthermore, the section on supply chains does not require companies to complete the proposed reports as there is the option to simply write that no report has been made. Consequently, the Bill could actually change very little in the way of transparency in supply chains. It is not just human rights organisations and human rights minded peers and MPs that have highlighted the flaws in this. Businesses that want to or already have measures in place to eradicate slavery in their supply chains have called for more stringent guidelines and Carmel Giblin, the CEO of SEDEX, argued that ‘establishing a code of conduct that sets clear, realistic expectations is vital’ and would make it easier to abide by expected standards. This would also help to level the playing field so as not to punish those who are standing against slavery.

Closer to home, the ‘Tied Domestic Worker’s Visa’ which was changed from a world renowned model to a visa full of exploitative potential in 2012 has caused quite a stir. Whereas previously, those on the domestic worker’s visa had the right to change employer (reducing power of the employer), the current legislation has created a system whereby the vast majority of people that come into the country as domestic workers tied by their visa to their employer are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Many have to work long hours, some without even their own room, and are at risk of verbal and physical abuse by employers. The vast majority of people on this visa are not permitted to leave the house of employment without supervision. As a result, if they manage to escape an abusive employer, they are breaching immigration rules so, as Baroness Butler-Sloss put it, ‘they can choose either to be a slave, or to be deported. That is just not acceptable’. The inability to change employer increases power at the hands of the employer as it significantly limits the ability of the employee to leave, regardless of how badly treated they are.

The current remedy as advocated by the Government is to provide information cards to people on arrival letting them know their rights and contact numbers. There are three main problems with this: many do not speak English, so are unable to read the card; the employer has the power to take this card, along with the passport, as soon as they get through customs, preventing them from accessing the information, and there is still no support for those that have no privacy to use a phone. As a result, many have put forward amendments suggesting that this visa should revert back to the pre-2012 version to help improve protection for domestic workers forced into slavery.

Finally, protection and support for victims, and children in particular, is still lacking. The Bill continues to focus much of its attention on prohibition and punishment (which takes up the majority of written space), whilst neglecting human rights. For this reason, Parosha Chandran (Human rights barrister) called the bill a ‘red herring’ due to the neglect to focus on victim protection which she described as a ‘fatal flaw’. Similarly, ECPAT UK, a children’s anti-trafficking organisation is petitioning the government to include measures such as legal guardianship for child victims (which has been approved in Northern Ireland), and a specific crime for child trafficking and exploitation. This would help to reduce the number of offenders that currently walk free, whilst providing a safe and secure environment for care for children that are adjusting to life outside of slavery.


What’s Next?

The Modern Slavery Bill is welcomed with open arms, and is widely positive. However, whilst the development of the Bill is a huge achievement, there is work to be done to make the Bill as combative and protective as it can be. Having completed the readings, committee and report stages in the House of Commons, the Bill is now under review in the House of Lords awaiting the report stage (a line by line examination of the proposed Bill as it stands). A consultation with businesses on the supply chain clause was promised to start in January and amendments are still being tabled ready for the next event – the report stage in the House of Lords on the 23rd February.

As this Bill is not complete, we watch with beady eyes to see how the next stages will shape this highly important piece of legislation.


To read the full Bill as amended in committee, follow this link.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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