Two young boys carrying heavy poles in a construction site

A new report by the Centre for Social Justice found that there are currently at least 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. This is a huge increase from the 10,000-13,000 suspected victims according to a 2017 government study. Recently, Leicester-based fashion brands Boohoo and Quiz have been embroiled in modern slavery allegations. 

Boohoo is currently investigating reports that workers at one of its Leicester suppliers were being paid just £3.50 per hour, almost £5 lower than the £8.20 national minimum wage. They have also allegedly been forced to work during the COVID-19 lockdown without protective equipment and social distancing. These reports immediately started to damage Boohoo’s reputation, with big-name retailers such as ASOS, Next and Zalando all dropping Boohoo’s clothing from their websites and their shares plummeting as a result. A few days later, Quiz announced that they believe one of their suppliers subcontracted clothing production to another supplier. They believe this subcontractor was paying their staff well below the minimum wage.

How has the pandemic increased the risk of modern slavery?

The shut-down of countless industries around the world during the pandemic has increased the unemployment rate, putting those in the most desperate of situations at risk of exploitation. Traffickers will be keen to exploit the desperate situation these workers might find themselves in and with seemingly no choice but to accept jobs in subpar working conditions, vulnerable individuals find themselves trapped in forced labour or sex trafficking. The employment contracts these workers receive are often fraudulent and they can often find themselves in debt bondage. 

In India, a hotbed for slavery, around 450 million migrant workers were already working under such conditions. Many of these workers lost their jobs and the little money they had when COVID-19 forced industries to temporarily shut down. There is increasing concern about the impact COVID-19 will have on modern slavery across the world, with unemployment reaching all-time highs in many countries.

How to spot signs of modern slavery

During supplier audits, procurement managers should look out for the following signs:

  • Restricted movement: victims kept against their will with measures in place to prevent escape such as withholding their passports and personal documents
  • Overtime: working unreasonable hours with little or no breaks just to make minimum wage
  • Recruitment fees/loans: migrant workers charged large agent fees for work in another country and unable to pay off the debt based on wages. Employers deduct costs from wages for basic living expenses at exorbitant prices
  • Documents: employers take possession of workers’ documents, leaving them powerless to leave or improve their situation
  • Payment: workers are paid in cash, rather than through a documented system detailing rates, hours worked, taxes or other deductions
  • Subcontracted work: workers are subcontracted throughout the supply chain, causing increased risk of poor regulation and worker exploitation
  • No complaints procedure: without access to union representation, workers are less able to express their grievances and protect their rights
  • Living conditions: workers may live together on site or in accommodation provided by the employer, often under poor living conditions
  • Slave behaviour: victims may exhibit signs of anxiety and fear. They typically have limited possessions and are prevented from speaking to third parties. They may not even know where they are or how much time has passed since they arrived.

What can we do to mitigate the risks of modern slavery?

Now more than ever it is important for businesses to do their bit in the fight against modern slavery. Here are some ways we can mitigate the risks of being caught up in the next modern slavery scandal.

Carry out vigorous supplier audits

When carrying out supplier audits, procurement managers should ask suppliers questions that will help ensure all staff in the supply chain are treated fairly. They should also carry out surprise visits to each supplier and look for the warning signs mentioned above.

VinciWorks has evaluated the way businesses send out and collect supplier questionnaires and developed reporting software that makes it easy to create and send out intelligent automated supplier questionnaires. The forms are fully customisable and include conditional logic so that suppliers are only presented with questions relevant to their services and products.

Enrol staff in modern slavery training

Screenshot from an online modern slavery course
Modern Slavery: Practical Steps for Procurement is tailored to procurement teams and gives an overview of every high-risk country

All staff should be educated on modern slavery, how to spot red flags and how to mitigate the risk of slavery in the supply chain. The best approach to training on the topic is to enrol staff in the course most relevant to their role. VinciWorks has created three courses on the Modern Slavery Act, from an in-depth course for senior staff and procurement staff to a 10-minute overview for staff at all levels of the company.

Produce a Slavery and Human Tracking Statement

Under the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act, all businesses with over £36m in annual turnover conducting business in the UK are required to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement. The statement should detail the steps that your organisation is undertaking to ensure that your global supply chain is slavery free.