As the UK government recasts its international role following the Brexit vote, it should draw on the country’s proud abolitionist history to lead global efforts to encourage businesses to eliminate slavery and forced labour from their supply chains. This would give practical effect to Theresa May’s declaration that modern slavery is the great human rights issue of our time. It would also help create a level playing field internationally for UK businesses already required to comply with domestic legislation on transparency in their supply chains.
The tragic reality is that slavery thrives today, despite being illegal under international law and in every country. It touches all of us. In the Congo, men, women and children are compelled by militias to mine minerals for our smartphones; Burmese migrants are trapped on Thai fishing boats and forced to fish seafood that ends up on our supermarket shelves; in West Africa enslaved children pick cocoa for our chocolate; and workers in bondage in South Asia are used to make our dirt cheap t-shirts. The Global Slavery Index estimates some 46 million people around the globe are in slavery.
It is also a lucrative criminal enterprise: it generates $150 billion in profits per year, second only to the trade in illicit drugs. It thrives when individual vulnerability and marginalisation, the demand for excessively cheap labour, and weak rule of law intersect.
In 2015 the UK took a significant step towards tacking slavery, including in global supply chains, with the passage of its Modern Slavery Act. Recognising the central role of business and consumers in fighting modern slavery, the Act includes a supply chain clause that requires businesses operating in the UK with a global turnover in excess of £36m to publish a statement each year detailing the steps they are taking to ensure that slavery and forced labour are not part of their own business or their supply chains. Properly implemented this will help consumers, investors, and the broader public to engage with businesses on modern slavery, as well as incentivise senior management to take action.
This was a landmark piece of legislation, and is something the UK can build on internationally as it seeks to reassert its place in international affairs following Brexit. The UK is very well placed to use its influential role in key international organisations to advance the anti-slavery agenda - and particularly the greater transparency of supply chains that can shine a light on this hidden crime. In doing so, it can also help create a level playing field for UK companies competing internationally with those not caught by the Modern Slavery Act.
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has significant influence within the larger UN system – which it is well-placed to leverage in the fight against slavery. As well as working to ensure that slavery is high on the agenda of the next UN Secretary General and encouraging greater coordination and coherence in the UN’s anti-slavery efforts, the UK should push the UN to prioritise effective supply chain transparency measures to ensure that legitimate businesses and the UN itself do not unwittingly encourage modern slavery.
The UK could also play a valuable role in assisting other states, including those with a high prevalence of slavery, to develop and implement similar legislation, not least through the Commonwealth and OECD. The UK could similarly capitalise on its key role in the G20 and G7, taking the opportunity of their annual summits to engage with other states on the issue of enduring exploitation and put pressure on them to adopt policies and legislation to combat slavery.
To tackle this entrenched crime, we need a renewed and robust abolitionist movement committed to ending slavery across the globe. We need powerful political leadership; we need businesses to get serious about tackling slavery in their supply chains. And we need to empower consumers to choose products free of slavery.
The UK government is well placed to play a leading role in advancing all of these goals internationally. By taking the global lead in this fight, the UK could have a truly significant impact, showing real, measurable progress in the next decade on a fundamental human rights issue, as well as reaffirming that the UK remains an outward-facing and internationalist nation despite its decision to leave the European Union. The UK has long driven global efforts to end slavery – it now has the opportunity to double-down on this effort and be at the forefront of the abolition of this egregious crime.
Nick Grono is the CEO of the Freedom Fund, a private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending modern slavery.