British retailers call for progress on ‘weak’ corporate anti-slavery commitments

Several big-name British retailers, including Marks and Spencer (M&S), Tesco and the Co-op, are among the 35 organisations to have signed a joint statement calling on the UK Government to set up a central registry for companies' modern slavery statements.

All large companies with an annual turnover of £36m or more are required to publish annual statements on what they are doing to tackle forced labour in their operations and supply chains under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. However, signatories of the new statement, including shoe retailer Clarks and the British Retail Consortium (BRC), believe corporate compliance with the Act has been “weak” due to a lack of unification and enforcement. 

Signatories cited the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics and non-profit Corporate Responsibility, which claim that 43 of the FTSE 100 firms failed to meet the requirements of the Act in 2017, with two-thirds of businesses in high-risk sectors such as agriculture, hospitality and technology producing “inadequate” statements, as evidence for the need for a central registry “as soon as possible”.

They additionally note that of the 25 million people estimated to be affected by modern slavery globally, 16 million are thought to be working within the private sector.

The statement reads: “We commend the adoption of the Modern Slavery Act and the efforts of the UK Government to bring the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking onto the world stage, encouraging other countries to combat this exploitation. We also commend those businesses showing leadership and making genuine and concerted efforts to tackle forced labour in their operations and supply chains.

“However, despite impressive action from some companies and sectors, compliance with Section 54 of the Act has been weak. It is our opinion that by mandating a central state-supported filing point for modern slavery statements, a [single state-owned] registry will facilitate improved compliance.”

Business action

Several of the statement’s signatories have already made moves to tackle forced labour in their supply chains, with M&S last year being ranked as the top FTSE100 company for taking meaningful action on slavery by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. The retailer launched a modern slavery toolkit, which encourages competitors in the retail industry to adopt best-practice policies, alongside conducting annual ethical business audits across its supply chains.

M&S also trains its employees and supply chain workers on how to spot the signs of slavery and how to escalate a case once it is identified, as well as working with enforcement agencies in the countries where it operates.

Similarly, Tesco has appointed 45 responsible sourcing managers to help identify potential “hotspots” in its global sourcing hubs and has put in place a due diligence process in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, while the Co-op last year launched a scheme to help integrate victims of the UK’s modern slave trade back into communities.

Away from the retail sector, communication and technology giants BT, Microsoft and Nokia announced they will partner with the United Nations (UN) to develop technologies that help tackle modern slavery and human trafficking in supply chains.

Supply chain transparency at Responsible Retail 2018

Solving key supply chain challenges – including modern slavery – will be one of the key themes of edie’s third annual Responsible Retail conference, taking place on 20 September 2018 at 99 City Road, London.

The full-day event has been designed for the retailers, sustainability professionals and key stakeholders that are looking for the information, insight and inspiration required to seize the sustainability opportunity.

Find out more about Responsible Retail 2018 and register to attend here.

Sarah George

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