Unfinished abolitionists: Britain returns to the frontline of the war on slavery

After a year in the firing line of a new abolitionist movement, the Home Office is going global with its anti-slavery legislation.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It’s been a long year for the campaign to save the government’s Modern Slavery Bill from mere ordinariness. On Sunday this movement reached a long-awaited milestone, bringing Britain’s abolitionist legislation back to where it should have been two hundred years ago.

When the government announced its plans to unveil a new all-inclusive anti-slavery bill in August last year, many believed Britain was renewing its time-honoured fight against domestic forced labour and transnational exploitation. When the draft Bill was published in December, however, it included no measures to counter the use of slave labour abroad.

Despite protests from the Bill’s evidence review panel, the joint parliamentary committee commissioned to scrutinise the draft and a coalition of 15 leading anti-slavery organisations, the Home Office concluded that it would legislate against domestic slavery exclusively, because asking businesses to audit and report on modern slavery in their supply chains would be an “additional burden”.

The government seemed happy to convert its domestic slave supply into a fully-registered, tax-paying workforce, but less inclined to look into all those too-good-to-be-true deals on resources and manufacturing that Britain relies on in fragile economies across the developing world.

After a resolute and passionate abolitionist backlash, however, from anti-slavery NGOs, human rights lawyers, investigative journalists, members of the public and MPs on all sides, the government announced on Sunday that the Bill would be amended to ensure that “big business will be forced to make public its efforts to stop the use of slave labour by its suppliers”.

The atmosphere at the Bill’s final committee hearing on Tuesday was one of relief and congratulation. Particularly towards Karen Bradley, minister for modern slavery, and the Home Secretary, who expressed her support for a supply chain clause when the Bill was first announced last August. Asked to comment further on the prospect last week, May intimated cautiously, “I can’t say much, but watch this space”.

“I want to congratulate the minister for what I know has been some very hard work in the intestines of the government,” said Sir Andrew Stunell MP with implicit reference to the inner conflicts rumoured to have delayed the decision for over a year. “I congratulate the minister,” Michael Connarty agreed, “because I know how difficult it was to challenge the ‘dark forces’ surrounding the Prime Minister”.

The announcement marks a welcome departure from the government line upheld throughout the debate that a “human rights reporting” requirement added to the Companies Act in October last year would be sufficient to legislate against slavery in supply chains. This existing measure was proven to be inadequate. It prescribed neither a duty to audit for slavery nor a duty to audit within supply chains specifically.

The increased press attention given to modern-day slavery since the Rana Plaza factory disaster in April last year undoubtedly added to the pressure on the government to revise its policy on foreign commercial exploitation. Most notably, the Guardian’s exposé of the Thai prawn-fishing industry, released in June, revealed scenes of kidnapping, corporal punishment and summary execution at the bottom of supply chains that led to Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons and the Co-operative.

Moving forward, the questions facing Theresa May will centre on the how far the government is willing to go with its supply chain amendment. Monday’s Home Office press release boasts a measure that “goes further than any similar legislation in the world by applying to businesses regardless of the nature of a company or what it supplies.”

Debates over the size of the companies to which the clause will apply appear to be ongoing. A similar provision in Californian legislation is based on company turnover. “Our initial thinking is that this will apply to larger companies,” Karen Bradley confirmed in the committee’s final hearing on Tuesday, “however, we want to get the threshold right”. The Home Office is due to host a “consultation” on the issue.

Either way the provision is set to be a culture-changer. Although the auditing requirement will likely only fall on larger corporations, it will be the smaller, less risk-averse outfits all over the world that are forced to clean up their acts accordingly. To this extent, Britain is returning to its world-leading role as a trendsetter and enforcer of international abolitionism.

Whatever happens now, my question is thankfully no longer whether our Prime Minister can bring himself to address slavery in the appropriate context, but whether he can do it in a manner that reflects the ambition of the abolitionist movement his hesitation created. Either way, as British abolitionists prepare for Anti-Slavery Day this Saturday, we have more to be proud of than we have had for the last two hundred years.

Michael Pollitt works as a researcher for Frank Field MP. He tweets @MJPollitt