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27 August 2014updated 29 Aug 2014 10:20am

During an unexpected boom in the industry, David Cameron is fumbling on slavery

As slavery all over the world is more prolific and lucrative than ever, a new British abolitionist movement is beginning. Just like 200 years ago, however, it is encountering “dark forces” at the top.

By Michael Pollitt Michael Pollitt

The 35 Afghans found in a shipping container on Tilbury Docks this month will provide ample grist for the government’s “Slavery Is Closer Than You Think” campaign. Yet such incidents represent only a tiny fraction of the globalised networks of exploitation that put food on our plates and clothes on our backs.

With as many as 29.8m slaves all over the world today, generating $150bn in illegal profits every year, slavery is more prolific and more lucrative than ever. Increasingly, this new globalised slavery has been found running through the supply chains that lead directly to our high streets and supermarkets.

After the numerous exposés of slavery and child labour on West African cocoa farms left a such bitter taste in the mouths of Cadbury’s, Mars, Nestlé and the other confectionary giants at the top of the chains, the Centre for Social Justice released its landmark report It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery. The report made recommendations for a new Transparency in UK Supply Chains Act.

The proposed Act was modelled on its American predecessor, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, according to which large companies doing business in California are required to disclose publically their efforts to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. Yet when the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill came before parliament in 2012, it was soon kicked quietly into touch.

Despite support from church leaders, business groups, anti-slavery organisations and MPs on all sides, the debate on the Bill was deferred and failed to be heard before the end of the 2012-13 parliamentary session. Britain’s would-be Transparency in Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Act therefore made no further progress.

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Later that year, when the government unveiled its plans to introduce a new all-inclusive Modern Slavery Bill before the end of the current parliamentary session, many believed Britain was making its triumphant return to the forefront of international abolitionism. Yet, nowhere in the Bill were supply chains mentioned.

Ignoring protests from the evidence review team, commissioned by the government to gather intelligence for the legislation, the Home Office issued a statement explaining that supply chain auditing would remain voluntary, because mandatory requirements would be an “additional burden” on businesses.

On the same day, the Guardian released its exposé of the Thai prawn industry. With memories of the Rana Plaza factory disaster still reverberating in the consumer conscience, the report revealed a picture of slavery, in the most traditional sense of the word, at the bottom of seafood supply chains that led directly to supermarket giants Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

After the cocoa farm scandal of 2010, the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 and the Thai prawn-fishing exposé of 2014, public opinion in the UK is primed to bring companies to account for their actions on the world stage. 82 per cent of Britons polled last year would support a law requiring large companies to report on slavery in their supply chains.

Moreover, MPs from all major parties have expressed their support for supply chain legislation. Business leaders have come forward to argue that legislating on supply chains would “level the playing field” and ensure that companies taking action against supply chain slavery are not being undercut by unscrupulous competitors. Even the Home Secretary, in a letter to The Sunday Times, said the Modern Slavery Bill should “encourage companies to make a commitment that their suppliers do not use slave labour”.

Politicians have been prompted, therefore, to look towards the top and argue, in the words of Michael Connarty MP, that “the Home Secretary is involved in a contest against some dark force in Number 10 Downing Street that is trying to stop the government moving all the way forward on the Bill, particularly on questions such as supply chains.”

Be that as it may, the fact remains that unlike two hundred years ago, when Britain led the global abolitionist movement by example, the UK government is now content to let America take the lead. British civil society has shown itself to be as strong as ever. Think tanks, journalists and opposition leaders have brought this issue as close to the top as they can. We still meet resistance, however, when we demand that the government makes demands of businesses.

In 2011, David Cameron expressed his ambition for the UK to “lead the world in eradicating modern-day slavery”. Until and unless the Prime Minister addresses this issue in the appropriate context, and recognises that slavery does not just happen in the UK, but for the UK all over the world, the country will remain a one-time enemy and long-time friend of the immortal international trade in slaves.

Michael Pollitt works on the Transitions Forum and The Culture of Prosperity programmes at the Legatum Institute. He tweets @MJPollitt