Large UK businesses that fail to state their policies on tackling modern slavery and forced labour in their supply chains could end up in court.
The Home Office has ordered the chief executives of the 17,000 businesses with turnovers of more than £36m ($46.7m, €40.7m) to write the information into their annual transparency statements.
Businesses that do not comply will be named at the end of the 2018-19 financial year as being in breach of the law, and this could lead to criminal prosecution.
The instruction was sent out as No 10 Downing Street, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and other buildings were bathed in red light to show support for Anti-Slavery Day, October 17.
Victoria Atkins, the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, said: “It is horrible to think some of the goods and services we buy could have been produced by someone forced into modern slavery.
“This is abhorrent, and as global leaders in the fight against modern slavery, we will not tolerate it.”
About 60 per cent of the businesses in the targeted category are estimated to have published slavery statements. However, some of the statements are said by the Home Office to be of poor quality or to fall below even the basic requirements.
The Home Office demand is part of a wider government effort to eliminate slavery.
A review of the Modern Slavery Act, introduced by Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2015, was started this year by a parliamentary group comprising the Labour MP Frank Field, a former Minister of Welfare Reform; Conservative MP Maria Miller, a former Minister for Disabled People, Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities; and Baroness Butler-Sloss, a crossbench member of the Lords and a former Court of Appeal judge.
The group is considering whether the law compelling businesses to take action against forced labour in supply chains should be strengthened. Tougher sanctions are among the options on the table.
More backing for the anti-slavery cause was given earlier this year when the Home Office and the Department for International Development gave £5.5m to eradicate human trafficking and child exploitation in Commonwealth countries.
The grant will help UN researchers to expose child labour. The UK role in the work will be to support police forces and prosecutors in rooting out human trafficking.
The UK’s present total budget for anti-slavery activities is £150m announced at the UN General Assembly in September 2017.
Alongside government efforts to achieve transparency and an end to slavery, UK investment consultancies are intensifying pressure on companies to show they know the conditions under which employees in their supply chains are working.
Companies must do more to ensure labour rights are protected now that investors and regulators are asking for more transparency, explained Martina Macpherson, president of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets, an international group of professionals, academics and investors.
She said: “There is a cost of capital for companies that don’t take an interest in their supply chain. Understanding human rights risks and labour rights is becoming increasingly important.”
The Confederation of British Industry is conducting another parallel project, to define the strategic risks that may be linked to modern slavery.
Recent research has estimated that 40 million people worldwide are enslaved and annual proceeds from their exploitation have reached $150bn (£115bn, €130bn).
John Howell, Chief of Thought Leadership and Editorial Director, is a co-founder of 3BL Media, the parent company of Triple Pundit, begun in 2009. Howell oversees original editorial content procurement and creation. He is also the author of the weekly Brands Taking Stands Newsletter. He has written and edited for Elle, Artforum, High Times, the New York Times Magazine, and the LA Times. Howell is based in Wonalancet, NH.