To many of us in western Europe, the UK included, modern slavery is thought to be something that happens in other parts of the world, mostly involving people from poorer regions. So, you might be surprised to hear that over 10,000 people in the UK were identified as victims of modern slavery in 2020 alone.

Indeed, this depraved and immoral trade is providing profits to criminals in villages, towns and cities across the country. But what drives this in a modern developed country? Which businesses are involved, and, how does this impact on business resilience? Most importantly, what can your business do to address this and improve business resilience to this criminal behaviour?

The accuracy of data on modern slavery in the UK is often uncertain. The figure of over 10,000 victims identified in 2020 will vary depending on who is reporting and how. Some reports suggest the figure may be much higher. The criminal gangs exploiting this trade, of course, don’t provide stats and the authorities have only really started doing so in recent years. Undoubtedly, though, the trade is enormous worldwide. The International Labour Organisation, for example, estimates the illegal profits in the last 15 years from sexual exploitation to be around $99 billion with forced labour at over $43 billion.

What do we mean by modern slavery? The Modern Slavery Act 2015 for England and Wales received Royal Assent on 26 March 2015 with similar legislation being passed for Scotland and Northern Ireland the same year. There are four broad categories of modern slavery:

  • Human trafficking, i.e. arranging or facilitating the travel of another person with a view to that person being exploited. It doesn’t matter if the person consents to the travel or not
  • Forced or compulsory labour – with work performed often under threat of punishment or a penalty
  • Servitude – is a more aggravated form of forced or compulsory labour where often the victim will find it difficult to break the arrangement
  • Slavery – essentially, servitude with an element of ownership whereby the owner has control over the victim’s life, liberty and fortune

Modern slavery may be found in modern trades, such as food delivery or nail bars but also in more traditional operations, such as clothing and car washes. Forced and compulsory labour can cover a broad range of work and services including begging or pick-pocketing. Domestic servitude is included too. Nannies and domestic helps are not covered but the moment the arrangement transitions into a situation whereby the victim cannot leave of their own free will, it becomes a case of enslavement. These can be very difficult to detect given that they take place within private dwellings.

A victim’s personal circumstances, especially those which make the individual more vulnerable, may be relevant when determining whether a person has been held in slavery or servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour. The list of particular vulnerabilities which may be considered is non-exhaustive but explicitly includes the individual being a child, the person’s family relationships and any mental or physical illness. A child, for the purposes of modern slavery, is defined in the UK as a person under the age of 18.

Is modern slavery a business resilience issue? Most certainly. A business community that has to endure the additional stress of uncontrolled criminality cannot be resilient. Unregulated and criminal activity will always have an unfair commercial advantage over legitimate and regulated operations. Notwithstanding, inequality is a barrier to the resilience of any community. If business is to play its part in addressing resilience, then, the extreme inequity that is modern slavery needs to be tackled.

Businesses need to be aware of the potential for modern slavery within their own networks, communities and supply chains. Red flag examples include:

  • A cash-only based business – in a post-pandemic digital age less of these should ordinarily exist
  • A business which appears to be a large operation but seemingly has few employees
  • Any of the higher risk trades outlined earlier

If we are to address modern slavery, then we need to report business which raises suspicion. They may be fully legitimate.  But, in a post-pandemic period with soaring inflation and energy restraints, we can’t afford to allow modern slavery to undermine the resilience of, and to weaken, legitimate business communities.

Resilience First is grateful to our colleagues at ICAEW for access to their modern slavery video (How chartered accountants can counter modern slavery | ICAEW). Dipak Vashi, Head of Modern Slavery at ICAEW, will be speaking on the subject at the Resilience First Business Leadership Forum on 24 June.