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Will the Modern Slavery Act be effective in disrupting slave labour?

By Andrea Tokaji - posted Thursday, 30 April 2020


Historically, Wilberforce's Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the House of Commons on 26th July 1833 and its aim was to dismantle the large-scale plantation slavery that existed in Britain's tropical colonies, where the enslaved population was usually larger than that of the white colonies.

Fast forward to 2000, the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime was adopted by General Assembly resolution 55/25 on the 15th November. This Convention is the main international instrument in the fight against organised crime, signifying the recognition by Member States of the seriousness of these international problems, as well as the need to foster and enhance close international cooperation in order to tackle them.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children adopted by General Assembly resolution 55/25, entering into force on 25 December 2003 sits within the aforementioned Convention. It is the first global legally binding instrument with an agreed definition on trafficking in persons and its intention is to facilitate convergence, in recognition of their dignity as persons.

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This International Protocol is necessary: the 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8m people in 167 countries are living in modern slavery today, including 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriage. This means that there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world.One in four victims of modern slavery are children.

Out of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour, 16 million people are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture; 4.8 million persons in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million persons in forced labour imposed by state authorities. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labour, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors.

Human trafficking and slavery in the form of forced labour perpetuates not only grave human rights violations against the most vulnerable, but it often perpetuates poverty, generational debt and compromises corporate transactions due to its criminal, fraudulent nature - neglecting the basic principles of human rights, the dignity of the person and a fair wage for all..

In 2016, there were an estimated 11,700 victims of the legally defined forms of slavery in Britain alone, and since 2015, there has been a concentrated focus on slavery in the labour force and in commercial supply chains through international standards set such as the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and a series of domestic legislation implemented in several States to flush out the practice pf purchasing goods made by slaves.

The majority of trafficked slaves globally are victims of exploitation in private sector activities, such as manufacturing, construction agriculture, or within the hospitality or tourism industries. Forced labour and slavery is big business - the International Labour Organisation estimates that illicit profits from these crimes amounts to US$150 billion per year.

There is no doubt, in today's economy: modern slavery represents a significant reputational risk to businesses as non-governmental organisations and the media 'name and shame' companies who violate human rights, with businesses facing increasing pressure to tackle the crisis of modern slavery head-on as awareness grows and consumers demand higher ethical standards from their preferred brands.

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Domestic Laws that address Slavery in Business Supply Chains

The UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework 2015, developed out of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights was the world's first comprehensive guidance for companies to report on how they respect human rights, with the author of the Guiding Principles, Professor John Ruggie, calling the Reporting Framework an "indispensable tool".

In 2015, the UK Parliament introduced their Modern Slavery Act 2015, which, among other measures, requires commercial organisations in any sector with a global annual turnover of £36m or more who do business in the UK to disclose in an annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement the steps they are taking to address modern slavery in their business and supply chain in provision 54 of the Act.

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About the Author

Andrea Tokaji is a lecturer in Business and Law at Sheridan, Perth, and is a trained international human rights lawyer.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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