“It’s a scandal that we can be sitting in this office and within a mile is somebody who’s been deprived of their liberty and shipped across a whole continent under false pretences.”
ITN’s Julie Etchingham made this statement during a roundtable event this week, as leading figures from business, the media and law gathered to discuss a horrifying phenomenon.
The high-profile sentencing of 10 men and one woman earlier this week catapulted the issue of modern slavery into the spotlight. Last month, detectives revealed that modern slavery is far more prevalent than previously thought, estimating numbers to be in the tens of thousands.
Before his sudden resignation earlier this month, New Look chief executive Anders Kristiansen said the “vast majority of all UK factories have issues with health and safety and salaries”, alleging that some paid only a “couple” of pounds per hour.
Perhaps most damning was his indictment of other retailers, accusing them of turning a blind eye to abuses being carried out in the name of cheap and accessible labour.
Professor Andrew Crane of Bath University agreed: “Some retailers are absolutely turning a blind eye.”
Crane’s latest study into the issue revealed that modern slavery was present in the supply chain of numerous UK grocers. He found that some workers on farms, far detached from the retailer’s immediate supply chain, were victims of modern slavery.
“Flexibility should come at a cost, it should be a value added to any company”
“From the employer side, because there are these different layers of outsourcing it means that for a start, retailers are quite distant from those workers,” Crane told Retail Gazette.
“Even though they might know where the farm is, they never come into contact with them. Even if they have social auditing practices in place, they tend to miss them because they’re not targeted on these temporary workers in the way that they need to be.”
As illuminated in the recent Sports Direct scandal, third party employment agencies are commonly a large part of the picture when it comes to modern slavery. Not only do they provide more distance between the retailer and workers, but they ensure the “culture of flexibility” is driven forward.
“One of the problems we have here is that companies are not willing to pay for flexibility. Flexibility should come at a cost, it should be a value added to any company,” Crane said.
“But actually, they’re trying reduce costs which is how flexibility gets introduced to the UK labour market. This means as more intermediaries enter the market they take a slice of that fee that’s being paid and that increasingly pushes it down below minimum wage.”
With the UK’s divorce from the EU drawing ever closer, companies are increasingly looking to source their goods from the UK. If retailers are truly turning a blind eye to the problem, modern slavery and workers right violations could grow exponentially in the sector.
Not only will demand increase, ramping up the number of workers needed, but it creates massive uncertainty over whether workers can work legally. Factors like this increase incentives to traffic people into the UK illegally, creating a perfect storm which leads to amplified vulnerability for workers.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that to avoid this issue, better regulation is needed.
“There is an appetite to increase sourcing in the UK and invest in the industry, but to enable this the industry has to be well regulated, with the skills to meet customer demand and crucially put the rights and development of its workers at the heart of its businesses,” the group said in a statement to the Retail Gazette.
“Whilst there are some outstanding UK factories, there are, however shortfalls in ethical labour standards in many others that are deterring retailers from investing, as they know how important fair treatment of workers is to their customers.”
Conversely, it is possible that Brexit could improve the situation. By shortening supply chains and sourcing locally, retailers have a more immediate relationship and have more opportunities to audit and regulate. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be shortening their labour supply chain.
Meanwhile, some retailers are at the forefront attempting to find a solution. Although the issue is complex, the key first steps are training and auditing.
Recently, retailers like House of Fraser joined an initiative called Fast Forward, which the BRC said was “taking proactive steps towards addressing these shortfalls”.
The department store’s head of sustainability Dorothy Maxwell explained: “Fast Forward is to capacity build in UK supply chains, particularly in the fashion sector to improve labour practices.
“There’s clearly a case for government to have a stronger role here, particularly in not creating the conditions leading to vulnerability.”
“It came about because retailers are very concerned about it. It makes sense to have products manufactured in the UK if you can do it.
“It’s all about training and auditing your supply chain and suppliers to really good standards, particularly to be in compliance with the Modern Slavery Act. Factories have to be in line with that and they often need training to do that.”
Of course, it is going to take more than just the actions of retailers. With the number of victims more than doubling in the past three years, a wider approach is necessary.
Aside from helping those already caught up in modern slavery, it’s vital to try and reduce the factors leading to it in the first place.
Crane said the government had a role to play: “There’s clearly a case for government to have a stronger role here. Particularly in not creating the conditions leading to vulnerability, also in improving inspections in the work place.
“Companies want to protect their reputation but there’s only so much they can do to investigate all of these issues.
“Companies are not going to be able to solve this overnight. Even the most well-intentioned ones are aware that there are limits for what they can currently do.”
Thankfully, it’s no longer going unnoticed. Keeping the spotlight firmly on the problems leading to slavery abuses is a good first step to helping the victims. Unfortunately though, this is just a first step.