It is estimated there could be over 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. They are subject to exploitation and forced labour in places like nail bars, car washes, farms, factories, and restaurants. Many have been trafficked here and forced to work to pay off debts to the trafficker. Young people may have been groomed and sexually exploited.
A recent Observer story highlighted how this is linked with ‘county lines’ drug running and knife crime. Hertfordshire has been identified as having had the highest proportional increase in knife offences in England and Wales over the last seven years. Dacorum had the highest number of knife crimes reported in Hertfordshire last year (211 crimes).
Collectively, local authorities in England spend more than £40bn per year procuring goods and services on our behalf. From car washes to cleaning and construction, councils do business with literally hundreds of different suppliers–both big and small. Supply chains are complex and many of those firms will have contractors and suppliers of their own. Councils need skilled and well trained procurement staff backed up with clear robust policies to make sure none of our money is used to support exploitation.
Over the last few weeks Labour councillors have successfully persuaded Dacorum, Three Rivers and Watford councils to sign up to the Charter Against Modern Slavery. The Charter is the centrepiece of the Co-op Party’s campaign against modern slavery and commits councils to work to eliminate modern slavery locally. They must also review their procurement practices, challenge abnormally low cost tenders, and require suppliers to treat workers fairly, including highlighting their right to join a trade union.
At the national level, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was a good start, but more is needed to enforce it and to increase support for modern slavery survivors. The Co-operative Group’s Bright Future programme offers them the opportunity of a paid work placement and a job in its food business. Labour/Co-op MPs and Peers are working as part of a cross-party effort in Parliament to increase support to those who have been rescued from 45 days to 12 months. They are also pressing for full implementation of the Act’s requirement for businesses to publish a statement on modern slavery. Paul Sweeney MP has been challenging the Tory Government to consider modern slavery as part of any future trade deals. Kezia Dugdale MSP has called for the SNP Scottish Government to live up to their commitments to eradicate modern slavery in their supply chain.
I learned at school that slavery and child labour were ended by great nineteenth century reformers like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. Surely it is a mark of shame that, despite those reforms, some of the most vulnerable people are suffering from these vicious practices in amongst comfortable communities in the twenty first century.
For more information, advice, or to report a case of modern slavery please call the Modern Slavery Helpline 0800 0121 700 or visit https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/