The first thing to say is that the Modern Slavery Act is a decent law with some very important provisions: the measures on victim protection, particularly of children, and the transparency in supply chain clause both represent significant steps forward in government understanding of and action on combating the realities of contemporary slavery.
Of course, as with any law or policy, particularly anti-slavery measures across the world, the challenge is in implementation. And this is where it gets difficult, because, of course, this law does not exist in isolation but in the wider context of national and international law and policy.
Slavery occurs at the conjunction of three factors: individual vulnerability, usually, but not exclusively as a result of poverty; social exclusion; and failure of rule of law. So it is a truism to say that anyone can be enslaved. Generally speaking those who are enslaved are poor people who come from communities that the wider society does not particularly like: Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia, for example, or migrants in Europe.
Understanding that, we see that the cataclysm of war that the West has exported to the Middle East has rendered millions more people, both in the camps and those who have made it to the shores of Europe, vulnerable to slavery. It matters not that the government has spent much of the summer disingenuously describing the phenomenon of refugee flight as trafficking. It is the failure of Europe to establish safe migration routes in the context of a coherent humanitarian and security policy that renders these people vulnerable to slavery, not those in Libya or Turkey who cynically rent or sell those refugees dangerous boats. And let me remind everyone, safe legal migration routes are strategies to prevent trafficking. It is lack of safe migration routes to the gulf states that presents us with the prospect of seeing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar brought to us by the enslavement of tens of thousands of South Asian migrant workers and the manslaughter of thousands more.
The risks are of course exacerbated by the rising tide of xenophobic rhetoric that is being bandied about in this country and in other parts of Europe. I may be idealistic but I still believe it is the duty of politicians to demonstrate moral courage in leadership, not to pander to the prejudices of the ignorant. That path leads only to rising tides of hatred which, in turn, make it easier for traffickers to enslave and exploit vulnerable migrant workers, secure in the knowledge that national political leaders in the countries in which traffickers operate have told their compatriots to resent and fear migrants as sources of all their woes.
And these are not the only obstacles that the effective national anti-slavery strategy in the UK faces.
There is of course the Overseas Domestic Worker visa which in remains a government-issued license for trafficking for domestic servitude to the UK.
Then there is limited labour inspection in the UK with the remit of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority restricted to food and agriculture, with other risky industries such as construction, catering, cleaning, hospitality, care and, of course, and perhaps most seriously, domestic work, uninspected. Even with the guidance of the Modern Slavery Act it is difficult to see how the police can compensate for this lack of inspection, when, apart from a few outstanding specialist units, they lack a culture of slavery awareness.
And, even if they had one, it is difficult to see how they will fulfil all the anti-slavery expectations of the government given the prospect of eye-watering cuts to the police that we are being warned about.
The conflation of labour inspection and immigration patrols that is being mooted around the new UK Immigration bill threatens to worsen the situation even further. Such an arrangement would effectively break trust between potential victims of crime and the inspectors who, if the history of the UK Borders Agency involvement in anti-trafficking work is anything to go by, would prioritise the deportation of trafficking victims, who would also, by the way be witnesses to crime, over their recognition, protection and rehabilitation.
It is in this context that we should also understand the government’s antipathy to the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights. Nothing upsets the PR bandwagon like a judgement against a country for failure in its human rights obligations. In the past the UK has been held to account in the Court over its failures in anti-slavery law and policy, notably the case of CN versus the United Kingdom in 2012. Given some of the wrong-headedness of UK policy relating to slavery, even with the Modern Slavery Act on the statue books, I would anticipate it will be held to account again if it remains subject to its jurisdiction.
But while it may feel politically expedient to evade this possibility the UK pulling out of the Court will be a signal to other countries, with less robust institutions and shallower human rights traditions, that the UK, one of the moving forces behind the Council of Europe, itself a legacy of Winston Churchill’s vision, now regards key ideals of international rule of law as optional. In such a future mistaken, ill-advised, racist or just plain stupid government behaviour across Europe on the issue of slavery in particular, and human rights in general, could go unchecked if other countries follow the UK’s example.
The government will of course counter that a British Bill of Rights will provide proper protections, at least to people living here. But cuts to legal aid will make into a forlorn hope any recourse to the courts for remedy in the face of bureaucratic incompetence or official indifference.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights argue that businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights and that governments have the responsibility to protect them. It is of course difficult for business to respect the rights of workers if governments are not doing their job of protecting them. This was a matter that compelled UK businesses to seek the transparency in supply chain clause in the Act. I hope that the reports of businesses will not limit themselves to accounts of the management measures they have introduced in order to counter risks of trafficking in their supply chains. I hope the reports will also, as I have attempted to do here, enumerate the law and policy failings in the states in which they are working that increase risks of human trafficking. Because it is a fundamental truth of contemporary politics that the voice of business carries greater weight than that of conscience. With that great power comes a responsibility for business to use its voice to help set out the laws, policies and practices that are necessary to eliminate slavery in their supply chains and, ultimately, in the world.
This goes to the heart of the matter. The elimination of slavery is a political issue. It is not a simple criminal justice challenge or a matter that can be resolved by giving material things, like mosquito nets or vaccines, to people who don’t have things. Those who are enslaved are excluded from power in part so they can be enslaved. So in addition to the national and European issues of government policy and law that I have set out that are essential to effective anti-slavery practice domestically, there are a range of measures in diplomacy and international education, aid and trade policy that are necessary if the UK is to truly provide a leading voice in the struggle against slavery in the world today.
The Modern Slavery Act is an important measure and let me it is a tribute to the good work of Karen Bradley, the minister responsible for bringing this law into existence. I hope people of conscience in the government, in parliament and beyond will recognise this and work to build a more comprehensive anti-slavery system rather than dismantle the foundations that have barely been laid.