Why businesses fail to detect modern slavery at work

Chains of employment. Shutterstock

I can tell you the farm where the steak on your plate came from. Probably even the name of the cow. But we have no idea where the workers came from that work in our kitchens.

That was the very frank admission from a senior executive of a major British hotel chain we spoke to as part of our research into modern slavery. Companies can increasingly trace where their products come from – but not the workers who produce them.

According to the National Crime Agency, there could be tens of thousands of victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK. The crime is is far more prevalent than law enforcement previously thought.

And businesses have little hope of detecting modern slavery practices unless they adopt a new approach that focuses specifically on their labour supply chains.

Twenty years ago, most high street retailers didn’t have a clue where the things they sold came from. But a revolution in responsible business practices has now led to companies spending vast sums of money tracing the source of their products.

As part of the ever expanding remit of responsible sourcing, everything is examined – from working conditions to waste, and corruption to carbon emissions.

Increased attention to modern slavery has pushed extreme forms of worker exploitation up the corporate agenda, most notably (in the UK) with the introduction of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. While companies were understandably nervous of additional regulation, many assumed that they were already well prepared, given the investments they had made in responsible sourcing practices.

Our research suggests they were wrong.

The problem is that current approaches to responsible sourcing tend to focus on tracing the product supply chain. But the key issue in tackling modern slavery is in understanding the labour supply chain. These are often unregulated networks through which forced or trafficked workers may be recruited, transported, and supplied to business by third party agents.

A labour supply chain consists of a sequence of relationships a worker might go through to end up in work. The chain might be short, consisting simply of a producer and a worker. Or, particularly where international movement is involved, there may be multiple layers of intermediaries, agents, brokers, traffickers and gang-masters.

The problem for people like the executive of the hotel chain we spoke to (who knew his steaks), is that some of the workers in those kitchens may well have been supplied by unscrupulous agents. Agents who, unbeknown to the hotel, are subjecting the workers to highly exploitative labour practices.

These can include withholding their passports, forcing them to work for little or no pay, threatening them or their families, or tricking them into racking up huge debts through deductions for accommodation, food, transport and other “services”. Some will even have paid to get the job in the first place.

The challenge in dealing with these types of practices is that companies cannot easily trace where workers have come from or the types of exploitation they have been exposed to. But some have taken positive steps. Apple, for example, has banned the payment of recruitment fees by workers in their supplier factories.

Chains of labour

In the UK, responsible labour providers have set up programmes to improve standards and better identify modern slavery practices. Such initiatives are helpful, but the stark reality for companies struggling to cope with the threat of modern slavery is that, for the most part, the labour chains remain invisible.

Our research, based on interviews with experts in business, NGOs, trade unions, law firms, and the police, shows that informality, and layers of subcontracting, thwart even the most well-intentioned companies.

In agriculture, suppliers often have little idea of who is working for them. One of our sources explained:

You call someone, you say I want 20 people, and that person maybe has five people at their disposal. So he phones somebody else and says, have you got some people and they go, yeah I have got three but I can get you another eight, so he phones his mate. It is very, very informal.

These different agents will rarely if ever be formally documented as official suppliers and so the audit trail will typically overlook them. As one social auditor, employed to check on worker conditions for high street companies, explained to us: “You can’t check all those agents who are responsible for all the people who’ve been on the farm. So there could always be another group of people who aren’t written down and this happens commonly.”

Leading UK companies are starting to wake up to the fact that their existing systems for detecting worker abuse simply are not fit for purpose for uncovering modern slavery. But, as new initiatives emerge, the critical factor determining their success will be whether they meaningfully address the labour supply chains that feed their business.

It is these chains that make slavery-like practices seemingly invisible even when the workers subjected to them are right in front of us in the farms, factories and construction sites that surround communities.