Oxford Brookes Business School

Modern Slavery - Collaboratively addressing current challenges in the public, private and third sectors

Friday, 23 November 2018

Anti Slavery Day

What are the current challenges confronting these different actors in the UK to combat modern slavery? How can they organise to address these and future challenges? And, how can we as individuals - students, employees, managers, neighbours - also play a role in their prevention?

We’ve come a long way to acknowledge, understand and start addressing the risk of modern slavery. But we are still at the beginning in terms of protecting potential victims and raising awareness.

Tamsin Jewell, Elmore Community Services

The UK 2015 Modern Slavery Act and other such legislations around the world have led to increasingly more cases of slavery and human trafficking being reported and prosecuted. In 2017, 4,500 cases were reported in the UK, ‘the tip of the iceberg’ according to Lys Ford of the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA). Forms of modern slavery are widespread, they occur globally and locally, in the supply chains of big firms and in small and medium enterprises, in homes and through family networks. They involve and require actions from the public, private and third sectors as well as individual attention.

To mark International Anti-Slavery Day 2018 and address these questions, Dr Samentha Goethals and Dr Maureen Brookes of Oxford Brookes Business School, in conjunction with Brookes Union, organised a multi-sector and multi-stakeholder event. Reflecting the complex make-up of actors involved in tackling modern slavery and the need for collaboration, this first anti-modern slavery event at Oxford Brookes gathered representatives of government, the police, charities, and hospitality, retail, and recruitment businesses. The event built on the Business School’s COMBAT Project to address human trafficking in the hospitality sector and research in Business and Human Rights in the Centre on Business, Society and Global Challenges. The event aimed to raise awareness about modern slavery among students, staff and the local community in Oxford by informing them about the widespread and local nature of this severe criminal phenomenon and how to spot and report signs. It consisted of three different activities including a stall exhibition of organisations working to tackle modern slavery, an extract performance of the play Bound by Oxford-based Justice in Motion, and a multi-sector panel discussion. The speakers featured Victoria Butler of Thames Valley Police (TVP), Lys Ford of the GLAA, Tom Hayes Councillor at Oxford City Council, Tamsin Jewell on behalf of Oxford Anti-Slavery Network (OXASN) and Elmore Community Services, Sian Lea of Shiva Foundation (Hotels), Chris Grayer of NEXT Plc (Garment manufacturing and retail), Nadia Youds of John Lewis (Home goods manufacturing and retail), and Paul McAnulty of Staffline (recruitment).

The 10-stall exhibition showcased the important work carried out by various charitable, police and business organisations. It showed how diverse actors and initiatives are needed to address different aspects of organised exploitation and help at risk individuals. These range from raising awareness about modern slavery and how to identify signs in the workplace, in shops, in the community through on-going campaigns and theatre, to investigating and prosecuting cases, to supporting victims, to helping vulnerable people and preventing them from falling prey to gangmasters or exploitative situations.  

The short performance of Bound opened the panel discussion by provocatively and artistically illustrating the human, physical and emotional dimensions of slavery. Drawing on survivors’ stories, the play shows the hardship, violence and psychological pressure holding people in situations of severe exploitation in the sex industry and on construction sites. It also captures the hope that can arise when people held in servitude build bonds of solidarity across language barriers.

The multi-sector panel described the scale and complexity of the criminal phenomenon and the challenges confronting the police, the national labour protection agency, local authorities, charities supporting survivors, and different industries operating in the UK and overseas. The speakers complemented each other in their accounts highlighting the diverse and complex forms slavery takes in their sectors; the systemic causes creating and underlying individual vulnerabilities; the need for education and collaboration to help combating it; and what signs can betray exploitation in business and in everyday life. This blog shares some of these critical insights.

Diverse and complex forms of modern slavery

Lys Ford of GLAA explained that the main purpose of modern slavery is profitability through the control of vulnerable individuals each of whom are exploited to provide several sources of income. Control is organised through complex and ramified networks or gangs who exploit individual vulnerabilities and fear to isolate victims from the social circles where they could find help. Tom Hayes Oxford City Councillor described how this includes drug gangs targeting children and teenagers and co-ercing them to move drugs and money around Oxford.

Recruitment agencies such as Staffline, as well as brands NEXT and John Lewis, with long supply chains abroad and in the UK are particularly concerned by the common use of scamming and deceit of foreign workers. These workers are easily exploitable, lured by the prospect of better lives and income to repay debt and support their families, they get caught in debt-bondage. Because they often don’t understand English and are unaware of their rights, many don’t realise that they don’t have to pay to get work in the UK. Many therefore fall for bogus job ads and agencies.They end up under the complete control of gangmasters who retain their documents, provide low-paid low-skill long-hours jobs, deduce wages for accommodation, food and transport, and divert salaries to their own bank accounts.

Such conditions, however, are not limited to the overseas supply-chains and factories of big businesses. Modern slavery occurs in every industry. According to Paul McAnulty of Staffline it is especially prevalent in businesses that outsource their workforce and rely on and devolve responsibility to recruitment agencies. Agencies may be the face of gangmasters networks that informally recruit and provide flexible, dirt cheap labour in small and medium enterprises, in nail-salons, hand car washes, constructions sites, fishing boats and cannabis, mushroom and poultry farms in the UK. These companies usually fall below the £36 million revenue line and do not have to conduct and report on risks of and action taken against modern slavery under the 2015 Act. Women and children are also trafficked into domestic servitude and in the sex trade, while, as described by Sian Lea of Shiva Foundation, hotels may unwittingly provide the venues for and facilitate such abuses.

Individual vulnerabilities and systemic causes

The common assumption is that foreign workers are especially at risk of trafficking and slavery. They may be tricked into exploitation to fulfil a dream to improve their lives and that of their families, to repay debts or because they have been sold into servitude by their relatives. They are vulnerable because of family allegiance and the fear of threats against them; because of physical violence and psychological manipulation; because of the necessity to repay debt. People in forced labour and sexual servitude are often isolated and under the total physical, financial and mental control of traffickers in a foreign country where they do not know their rights, have no means to escape and risk being deported because they are undocumented.

In this context, speakers from the private sector emphasised how Brexit might exacerbate risks of slavery. Brexit is a worrying prospect for businesses relying on foreign workers to do unskilled jobs that are difficult to fill with local labour, particularly in the farming, supermarkets, hospitality and manufacturing sectors. They warn that immigration and work restrictions of unskilled labourers, rising costs of trade and labour, and possible lowering of labour standards following Brexit might open the space for a black labour market where workers are trafficked and exploited to do these jobs.    

But modern slavery also concerns vulnerable British workers who are exploited following similar strategies. Numerous cases have been identified where people with histories of mental illnesses, disabilities, financial struggle and destitution have fallen prey to exploiters and been held in long-term servitude. Tamsin Jewell of Elmore Community Services described that while each victim of severe exploitation is unique, their circumstances represent a cocktail vulnerabilities be they personal issues or the results of policies and cultural expectations in the society in which they live. Survivors therefore require targeted, case-by-case and long-term support.

Several speakers, however, stressed that the climate of austerity in the UK and policies such as Universal Credit with delayed welfare payments have made things worse by aggravating precarious personal and socio-economic situations. Prevention has been made increasingly difficult because of detrimental cuts to public, community-based and social services that traditionally provided help to the most vulnerable. The level of government support to survivors and organisations providing assistance, safeguarding and care is also woefully insufficient to meet the needs of the lengthy  process of recovery required to stop individuals falling back into exploitation.

Another issue of concern for the private sector is the lack of inspection capacity and low enforcement of basic labour rights in the UK. Speakers from business described dire working conditions in farms and factories, while sanctions against criminals are too low to act as deterrents. Government policies are therefore critical causes of vulnerability that can keep people in cycles of exploitation. Yet, as a member of the audience asked, aren’t profit-driven business models and labour practices preventing workers to participate in social responsibility or to collectively organise and negotiate with their employers also part of the problem?        

Need for collaboration and education to help combating modern slavery

Limited public capacities and the multifarious and hidden dimensions of modern slavery require concerted and collaborative actions. Speakers for TVP, GLAA, Oxford City Council, OXASN and Shiva Foundation described various partnerships and networks that raise awareness about modern slavery, conduct research, facilitate reporting and prevention through helpline and social media apps, and assist survivors or individuals at risk around the country and locally in Oxfordshire. These include, among others: the Anti-slavery Helpline, Oxford City Hotel Watch, Safe Car Wash app and mandatory safeguarding training for taxi drivers. These initiatives are new and need consolidation particularly to expand education and training in key services and to share information and intelligence to debunk the complexity of trafficking and slavery networks. Currently missing are also associations of survivors willing to speak about their experience and help advance knowledge of the processes of slavery and trafficking.

Universities and Business Schools have important roles to play in terms of education and as employers. They can conduct and collaborate in research into the personal and systemic causes of labour, sexual, children and domestic servitude; develop policies, mechanisms and modes of organising that can help tackle slavery such as the Combat Toolkit for the hospitality sector; or elaborate models of support and safeguarding needed for survivors. Universities and Business Schools are also educational venues where future employees, managers, and leaders, as well as consumers, can learn about their rights and responsibilities. Curricula in business and management need to be updated to include course on corporate human rights responsibility including modern slavery. General information on how to question, recognise and report signs and practices of exploitation should also be widely available to students and staff.

As employers, Universities and Business Schools should also conduct human rights due diligence. They should ensure that their own labour practices, the agencies and suppliers and procurement chains they depend on guaranty fair and decent working conditions based on the living wage.

Signs to look for to identify risks and personal awareness

Besides collaborative public, private and third sector initiatives, individuals can play significant roles as managers, employees, and consumers. Being aware of signs and reporting on suspicion of exploitation through the Anti-Slavery Helpline or to the GLAA are the first steps to take. Understanding how our own consumerism and demand for cheap goods and services also impact on poor and exploitative working conditions is also necessary. Very low prices for food, beauty and cleaning services, garments and clothes, should prompt us to ask questions to the shops and brands we buy from. As business directors, managers and employees, we should also be aware of and act on the modern slavery policies of our employers. In line with this, the Modern Slavery Registry provides an up-to-date publicly available archive to learn about the position and actions taken by companies and brands against modern slavery.

For more information on how to spot signs and actions to take, visit the following websites:

TVP Stronghold - Fighting Organised Crime in Partnership

Modern Slavery Helpline

Combat Toolkit

SHIVA Foundation - End human trafficking in hotel industry

Oxford City Hotel Watch

Elmore Community Services

Modern Slavery Registry

Anti-Slavery International