Today marks Anti-Slavery Day 2016, a day introduced in 2010 by Anthony Steen CBE, then MP for Totnes through a Private Members Bill. Since then, it has grown significantly with an increasing number of awareness raising events taking place each year. This year, the day is being complemented by a dedicated week (17th – 23rd October is Anti-Slavery Week). Unseen, a charity committed to helping victims and survivors of modern slavery have coined a fun social media challenge called #letsnailit. ‘Let’s Nail It’ asks everyone (men and women) to paint their nails in bright colours to highlight that modern slavery is happening - right here - right now.
A dedicated day and week are all positive gestures, but if we were to fast-forward five or ten years, would 2016 be considered a turning point in the UK’s fight to eradicate modern day slavery?
Only time will tell; however, for now, there are at least four reasons why it looks promising and may be the best chance of being the catalytic year that is needed to deepen awareness of the issue, take collective action to prevent, address and prosecute (where relevant), and ultimately, put a stop to such abusive practices.
1. Premier support: For the first time in history, there is a premier driving the issue forward, evidenced through both words and a commitment to action. Through speeches, op-eds and interview responses, Prime Minister Theresa May has routinely outlined her mission to address modern slavery, both in the UK and abroad. Soon after accepting her position, she vowed to make it her mission to rid the world of what she referred to as a ‘barbaric evil’, writing an op-ed in The Telegraph entitled, “My Government will lead the way in defeating modern slavery” (30th July 2016). Such commitment has been backed up by action, through the announcement of a cross-departmental Modern Slavery Task Force (which will coordinate the UK Government’s efforts to tackle slavery) and the establishment of a dedicated International Modern Slavery Fund (which will have £33m earmarked for pilot projects and priority areas in key sourcing countries). Keen to ensure gaps are not missed, a review of the Modern Slavery Act has already been commissioned and completed. Not bad given it’s only one year since it came into force.
However, while ‘premier support’ is all well and good, such leadership merely indicates the (intended) direction of travel. The UK Government needs to demonstrate leadership through collective and consistent action. So far, simple yet effective practical ways for UK Government agencies to address modern slavery, such as changing their respective procurement practices has been slow. The recent report by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland OBE, outlines this as a priority area for 2016/17. In order for us as UK citizens/residents to believe the government is really committed to leading the world in combatting modern day slavery, we will need to see government departments (both national and local) changing their own behaviours and actions. It’s a quick win that will have significant positive ripple effects; effectively, forcing government suppliers to take their obligations within s54 Modern Slavery Act seriously, and demonstrating to other governments around the world what real government commitment looks like.
2. Independent oversight: While the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) has been in post since 2015, 2015 was the first year - the scene setter - for both Kevin Hyland OBE to establish his team but also stakeholders addressing modern slavery to see how he will approach the role. His strategic plan outlined five priority areas, rightly placing victim identification and care first. This was followed by the need for improved law enforcement and criminal justice (2), promoting partnerships (3), private sector engagement (4) and international collaboration (5). His first annual report provides a comprehensive summary of the various activities that he has undertaken from 2015-2016. While the breadth and depth of his interventions is to be commended, what is more impressive is how the report calls on certain actors to step up their game, for example, the police.
The independent nature of this role is critical to ensure progress in the field. By being independent, the Commissioner has the power to call out underperformance (which he does), make strong recommendations (which he does) and remind us all of the end goal - the eradication of modern slavery (which he does). 2016 anchors the role of the IASC in the unveiling of his first annual progress report, dedicated website launched today (http://www.antislaverycommissioner.co.uk/) and an increasing number of media comments and appearances made during the year, making the role and work of the IASC seep into a wider public consciousness, which leads me to point three.
3. Media coverage: 2016 has seen a sharp increase in the variety of media outlets (both old and social) raising awareness of forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery. Many news agencies and papers have addressed it head-on, covering the risks, highlighting prosecutions but also giving space to the human pain and documenting the impacts and feelings faced by victims and survivors. For some, it’s become a focussed feature of their current offering. In addition to increasing the number of special investigations into industries tainted with slavery, the Guardian online has a dedicated webpage entitled ‘modern day slavery in focus’ where you can access and read all of its articles for free. However, Coronation Street’s production team’s decision early on in the year to tackled modern slavery and ITV’s ensuing Advice on the Act, the role of the Commissioner, and notification of the free Modern Slavery Helpline (0800 0121 700) highlights how the issues are slowly making inroads into a broader public consciousness. By showing that slavery can exist right here in the UK, Coronation Street has contextualised what is often hard to imagine (and for some, accept) in a UK setting, and in doing so, has informed the British public in a way written media formats cannot.
4. Private sector acknowledgement: While it is true that the majority of companies have not fully embraced the spirit of s54 which requires companies with an annual turnover greater than £36 million to report on the steps they are taking to address and eradicate modern slavery in their business and supply chain, some have been candid about what they have found during their own investigations. In February 2016, Nestlé openly acknowledged that they had found forced labour in its supply chains in Thailand. While some point to the fact that it was hard to deny as it was ‘accepted knowledge’ in the industry, it cannot be overlooked that such public acknowledgement by a large global brand has demystified the idea of ‘coming clean’ for companies that become aware of similar incidences in their business and/or supply chain. Here’s hoping that many others will follow suit in 2017; acknowledgment must be the first step if a company is to take its obligations under s54 seriously.
By Désirée Abrahams
#antislaveryday #modernslavery #humantrafficking