According to a Home Office report, in 2013 there were estimated to be between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Ahead of his keynote on the subject at Procurex Wales, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s Head of Business Change and Development, Mark Heath, tells BiP journalist Julie Shennan how the problem is growing and what employers can do to tackle it.
Ahead of presenting his keynote on the subject at Procurex Wales, Mark Heath, Head of Business Change and Development at the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), described UK modern slavery as a huge problem and urged all employers to be vigilant.
Mr Heath said: “The Home Office put out figures in 2014 that suggested there were between 10.000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. But I don’t think we have yet fully grasped the size of the issue. The simple answer is that we don’t really know the true numbers. We need to look at the supply chain and report issues of concern.”
Mr Heath explained that though individual cases of modern slavery may vary, they share certain common factors: “If you are working or living in conditions that you would not freely choose for yourself then you are being exploited as a victim of modern slavery.”
Low-skill, high-demand and frequent-turnover jobs – such as in construction, care and warehousing – are soft targets for gangs, as Mr Heath noted: “Jobs that happen in the background tend to offer criminal gangs the opportunity to exploit individuals.”
This exploitation is often undetected due to the distance between workers and their employers.
Mr Heath commented: “Business leaders should try to meet with their workers and discuss their circumstances. Vigilance can start with a conversation on recruitment processes.
“Business leaders should identify what modern slavery might look like so that they can discuss whether it might be happening in their supply chain.”
Painting a picture of modern slavery in operation, Mr Heath explained that prospective workers from abroad are often conned by middlemen who transport them to the UK and seize their passports on the pretence that they will be returned after work is secured.
He said: “The gang leaders will then take the passports, open bank accounts and give these account details to a recruitment agency. The agency will be presented with workers who seem to have the right to work in the UK and will place them in jobs. The agency will not understand what is going on.
“Those workers who don’t have control over their own bank accounts or post will never see the benefits of their wage.”
He continued: “When you look at this simple process it makes us all realise how susceptible all supply chains are to being infiltrated by criminality. We want to use Procurex Wales to encourage checks and balances in the supply chain and tackle modern slavery.”
Anyone who suspects modern slavery is happening in their workplace can report it to the GLA, the National Hotline for Human Trafficking or Crime Stoppers.
Mr Heath added: “If you have a suspicion, report it to the authorities instead of trying to tackle it yourself. We need to protect the victim and – if a criminal investigation is needed – we need the right people in place to carry it out.”
The Modern Slavery Act has significantly raised the criminal penalties for any employer found to be breaking this law, but businesses should also be concerned about the adverse media coverage and loss of reputation such criminality can entail.
Mr Heath commented: “Some of the largest businesses require backing from ethical investors. These investors are now investigating companies’ working practices, so any sign of modern-day slavery could stop this investment.”
To help you spot the signs of modern slavery the GLA will be on hand at Procurex Wales to talk to delegates.
Mr Heath said: “Events like Procurex are really useful to get messages of supply chain best practice across to a broad range of businesses. The GLA look forward to taking our model and sharing it with other businesses; to spread the message that businesses must take action against modern slavery.”
To hear from Mark Heath and other industry thought leaders, register for Procurex Wales.