The ‘most reputable and recent’ international instruments that have set out to define, prevent, and prosecute human trafficking are the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and its related, Palermo Protocol. The UK is also bound by the Council of Europe and thus the provisions set out in the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (the Convention). The introduction of the Convention saw the Council of Europe advance on these broad provisions and has been deemed a ‘ground-breaking legislative instrument’, praised for its high standards of prosecution and extensive victim recognition. There is also considerable respect within the international community for the monitoring mechanism of the Convention and the recommendations that it has given. Regarding domestic legislation, the UK enacted the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. At the time of its enactment, the Act was seen to represent a significant development in challenging modern slavery.
The scope of legislation that has been implemented by the UK confirms the reality of its modern slavery problem, but also shows a commitment to combatting it. Albeit there is still some way to go. The current efforts to address business complicity in trafficking and modern slavery have been criticised for both their limited reach and success. This highlights a fundamental shortcoming in the enforcement of international human rights law, that has been highly contested among academia. Hoffman and McNulty suggest that the ethical standards of businesses require a ‘universality’ alike that of international human rights norms. Corporate liability is presently a hot topic of discussion, with the intergovernmental working group currently drafting a new UN treaty on the matter to mandate human rights due diligence expand corporate obligations. Such a declaration would hold both governments and companies to a common standard, which would arguably assist in closing the gap between the human rights protection of, and business complicity in human trafficking and modern slavery.
The UK’s domestic legislation concerning trafficking and modern slavery has also been subject to criticism. In a legislative commentary piece on the Modern Slavery Act, Jason Haynes refers to the increased incidences of modern slavery in the UK as a ‘disconcerting state of affairs’. The scholar attributes this to the fact that law enforcement officers are not as diligent as they could be in investigation and prosecution, a reality that Haynes’ claims to be embedded in the UK’s domestic response.
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) were also critical of the Modern Slavery Act in a recent report. Back in 2018, the EAC launched an inquiry into the environmental impact of the garment industry and accordingly made recommendations on the social cost of clothes. At the forefront of these concerns was the need to ensure that all workplaces in the UK are safe and that all workers are paid no less than the minimum wage. In addition to this, the report called for a greater deal of transparency in fashion supply chains and proposed that the Modern Slavery Act should be strengthened in this regard. However, these concerns and recommendations were notably rejected by the government, who were slammed by the EAC for doing so. With respect to implementing a more proactive approach to enforcement of minimum wage, it was claimed by the government that this is already the case with an increased budget and dedicated officers to its enforcement. In response to concerns over the Modern Slavery Act, the government did not adopt nor comment on any of the EAC’s recommendations.
A further approach implemented by the UK government that is interesting to consider is the reinstatement of the National Minimum Wage Naming Scheme. Following revision, the naming scheme was reinstated in July 2018. The objective of which is to deter employers from being tempted to break minimum wage law. The scheme recognises the power that making employers payment practices public can have. This idea reflects the concept behind the system of ‘creative capitalism’ proposed by Bill Gates at the 2008 World Economic Forum. Gates’ contends that offering recognition as an alternate incentive to profit, has the ability to enhance the reputation of a company and attract ‘good people’ to it. Drawing on Gates’ idea, Raigrodski recommends that companies should apply such thinking to their pursuit of clean and sustainable supply chains, free from trafficking and forced labour. The scholar proposes that supply chain efficiency and productivity can be improved by guaranteeing worker well-being. This would allow companies to generate profit whilst ensuring respect for workers, fulfilling the pledge of creative capitalism. This concept of using reputation, or recognition, as an incentive over profit has been proven to work in practice and has evidenced the damage that a bad reputation can have on revenue. Following the Leicester sweatshop scandal and resulting allegations that the Boohoo group faced, shares in the company fell by 23.4 per cent.
To conclude, the UK has demonstrated a willingness to curtailing its human trafficking and modern slavery problem. In the fast fashion and garment industry context, the next step arguably needs to be aimed at the company’s themselves and there is hope that the UN draft treaty on business and human rights will achieve this.
UN General Assembly, ‘United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’ 8 January 2001 A/RES/55/25.
Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, 16 May 2005 CETS 197.
Anke Sembacher, ‘The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings’ (2006) 14 Tulane Journal of International and Comparative Law 435, 436-437.
Rose Broad and Nick Turnbull, ‘From Human Trafficking to Modern Slavery: The Development of Anti-Trafficking Policy in the UK’ (2019) 25 European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 119, 121.
Jason Haynes, ‘The Modern Slavery Act (2015): A Legislative Commentary’ (2016) 37(1) Statute Law Review 33, 56.
Dana Raigrodski, ‘Creative Capitalism and Human Trafficking: A Business Approach to Eliminate Forced Labor and Human Trafficking from Global Supply Chains’ (2016) 8 William & Mary Business Law Review 71,
W. Michael Hoffman and Robert E. McNulty, ‘International Business, Human Rights, and Moral Complicity: A Call for a Declaration on the Universal Rights and Duties of Businesses’ (2009) 114(4) Business and Society Review 541, 542.
Environmental Audit Committee, ‘Government rejects reccomendations to force fashion industry pay to clean up its act’ (UK Parliament Committees, 18 June 2019)
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ‘National Minimum Wage Law: enforcement’ (October 2020), para 5.1.2.
Bill Gates, ‘2008 World Economic forum: Prepared remarks by Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee’ (24 January 2008) < https://www.gatesfoundation.org/ideas/speeches/2008/01/bill-gates-2008-world-economic-forum>
Tom Witherow, ‘Boohoo loses closes to a qaurter of its value as it fights off allegations of modern slavery at one of its Leicester suppliers’ (Thisismoney.co.uk)
Contact us to see how we can support you.