When the idea of a Modern Slavery Act first began to fizz on the lips of parliamentarians in 2013, there was one major international loophole to be closed. UK legislation held no requirement for large companies to check their supply chains for slavery.
As the government hastily drafted the bill between October and December that year, the evidence review commissioned to inform the legislation flagged this among the issues most in need of redress. “After hearing a wide range of evidence”, the panel, made up of senior parliamentarians, leading charities and Queen’s Council barristers, concluded that UK legislation should “crucially” include a requirement for companies to disclose the “concrete steps they are taking to eradicate slavery from their supply and product chains and business practices”.
When no such requirement was included in the first draft of the Modern Slavery Bill, a joint parliamentary committee, made up of peers and MPs on all sides, renewed the call for clear supply chain reporting legislation. So began the heartfelt backlash of consumer conscience, which resulted in the government’s eventual concession, almost 12 months later, that “big businesses will have to publicly state each year what action they have taken to ensure their supply chains are slavery free”.
By the time the government published the corresponding amendment later that month, the backslapping had barely subsided. Ministerial speeches and press releases boasted a measure that would “go further than any other similar legislation in the world” by applying to businesses regardless of whether they supplied goods or services. However, the revellers would have done well to think twice before getting into bed with the government on this issue.
Although the clause does apply to companies regardless of whether they supply goods or services, eight months on, the turnover threshold above which these companies will be asked to report on their supply chains has yet to be made clear.
Alarm bells should have been ringing from the moment the amendment was tabled. The issue had already been the subject of a private member’s bill tabled by Michael Connarty in 2012. His bill applied explicitly to “every company operating in the United Kingdom and having annual worldwide gross receipts exceeding £100,000,000”. However, after its debate was deferred and failed to be heard before the end of the parliamentary session, the Transparency in Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill, with its clear threshold of application, was consigned to the long grass.
What we are left with is a law whose provisions would satisfy the most ardent anti-slavery campaigner, but whose coverage could be narrowed down to such an extent that it punctures these inflated ambitions.
The government’s own publications demonstrate how much is at stake. Toying with four different company turnover thresholds above which the supply chain reporting requirements could apply, the results of the Home Office Modern Slavery and Supply Chains Consultation show that a £36m threshold would apply to 12,259 companies active in the UK, whereas a proposed £1bn threshold would apply to only 724.
A company with a turnover of £36m, the lowest of the government’s proposed thresholds, is already defined as a “large company” for the purposes of the 2006 Companies Act. In the same report, the government sets out its position “that this clause should apply to larger businesses”. If by this they mean companies at or above the £1bn turnover threshold they propose, we could see 11,535 companies already defined as “large” for the purposes of UK law continuing unaffected by this hastily applauded provision.
If the government opts for the higher of these thresholds, their argument will undoubtedly be that only companies with such a large income have the resources to audit all of their supply chains for slavery. Yet if companies have sufficient resources to seek out and negotiate all those too-good-to-be-true deals on manufacture and supply with business leaders across the developing world, they surely have the resources to ensure that trafficking victims aren’t being used on the factory floor.
Given the timing of all this, it is hard to imagine that some element of political posturing has not taken place. Announcing their supply chain amendment in late 2014 allowed the government to stride with confidence into the 2015 election battle on the moral high ground of international abolitionism. However, deferring crucial details, such as the threshold above which supply chain transparency will be enforced, allowed them to silence the more difficult questions until after the PR bandwagon had run its course.
Nevertheless, with the issue still undecided, we have an ever dwindling opportunity to hold the government to their word on abolitionism. Without the tireless campaigning of NGOs, lawyers, journalists, MPs and, most importantly, the electorate, we would never have come this far. If the same abolitionists who got the provision on to the statute books subject its implementation to same degree of scrutiny, we could save this world-leading piece of legislation from being remembered as a mere election gimmick. The fight against slavery in our supply chains need not be lost, as long as we realise that it is far from over.
Michael Pollitt works as a researcher in the House of Commons. He tweets @MJPollitt