The Modern Slavery Bill published this week has received a lukewarm response, with neither the industry nor pressure groups viewing it as effective.
Home secretary Theresa May introduced the bill to parliament on June 10, pledging to work with businesses to eradicate slavery practices from their supply chains.
Acknowledging the complexity of the supply chain, the government has sought to avoid placing additional legislative burdens on firms. Instead, it will work with industry leaders to raise awareness of slavery among their workforces and sub-contractors and to develop best practice.
Representatives from the fashion and retail industries – including Primark parent company Associated British Foods (ABF) and John Lewis – attended a roundtable hosted by the Home Office on June 11 to discuss the most effective way forward.
But so far, the industry appears relatively unmoved by the bill. ABF company secretary Paul Lister noted larger companies like Primark, whose supply chain came under scrutiny last year after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, “have been doing this for a long time”.
He added: “If [the legislation] brings out of the shadows those who haven’t, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
One high street supplier said: “Generally it’s a good thing, but let’s watch the big companies deflect it – they love dumping [responsibility] on someone else. In mainland Europe they take more of an interest; UK retailers don’t investigate the detail.”
Marilyn Croser, director of Core Coalition – a network of non-governmental organisations, academics, trade unions and legal experts that promotes corporate responsibility in the UK – said the absence of new reporting requirements meant the bill would have little or no effect.
“We would like to see requirements for companies to carry out due diligence in supply chains, to identify where there is slavery, and to report on that and what they are doing about it,” she said. “Some companies will take reporting [on a voluntary basis] seriously and invest in it, but some won’t – so the problem won’t be dealt with.”
Lister admitted it would be difficult for smaller retailers to eradicate slavery in their supply chains, but said this was not an excuse: “It’s for them to do the same sorts of inspections and audits we do.”
However Alex Jackman, head of policy for the Forum of Private Business, warned against unfairly penalising small retailers: “Small businesses that deal with overseas customers when importing materials could be vulnerable.”
The government refused to rule out future legislation, but noted work was under way at EU level to extend the current Companies Act requirements to create an expectation – though not a requirement – that companies report on human rights concerns in their supply chains.
A government statement published alongside the bill said: “In taking any further action in this area, the government is mindful of existing requirements on business and possible future changes to the business reporting regime.
“The Home Office needs to ensure [the bill] is proportionate. There is a huge difference between turning a blind eye and having a blind spot in relation to modern slavery, and government and prime contractors must support supply chains in this in the least burdensome manner.”
A spokeswoman for the Ethical Trading Initiative, one of the organisations to attend the roundtable, added: “The risks are very high in the supply chain and companies, including all those involved in the supply chain, have a role to play in tackling these issues.”