martinique-206916_960_720.jpgby Professor Ann Stewart

The UK Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2015 is heralded as making a major contribution to tackling the practices associated with modern slavery. These practices are often associated in popular perception with the activities of criminal gangs who traffic vulnerable young women and force them into prostitution. As the revelations relating to what went on in Rotherham and elsewhere show, it is not only young people from overseas who find themselves caught up in this form of exploitation.

The provisions in the MSA tackle trafficking and forced labour wherever it occurs because these practices can happen in many contexts – in fields, on fishing boats and factories. They also provide those trying to tackle these practices with measures designed to protect those in danger of such exploitation. The MSA establishes an Independent Anti- Slavery Commissioner who has responsibility to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences and in the identification of the victims of those offences.

The Commissioner’s priorities are set out in his first report. While highlighting the need to improve criminal justice responses he has also focused on the role that the private sector can play in the fight against slavery through the ‘world-leading provision requiring large companies to disclose action they are taking to ensure their UK and global supply chains are slavery free’. The United Nations post-2015 development agenda (2030 Global Goals for sustainable development SDGS) now contains a clear target and commitment to end all forms of modern slavery (Goal 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth Target). The SDG will shape the development policy for the UN and its 193 member states over the next 15 years.

The UK’s largest companies are now addressing their obligations regarding transparency within their own operations and those of their supply chains. They are, in conjunction with the Commissioner, developing models of best practice to ensure supply chains are ‘slavery proof’.

It is not surprising then that much thought and attention is going into developing ‘modern slavery’ policies and practices in the criminal justice agencies and that big companies with global supply chains are being advised by consultants on how to develop their management practices to meet their obligations.

But what of areas not obviously in the ‘spotlight’? What is the potential for slavery type practices in the diverse and complex UK care sector?  There is growing awareness of the pressures that this sector is under. Good quality care is costly but providing it is not necessarily profitable. Commentator speak of crisis: the business models adopted by leading care providers such as Four Seasons have proven very vulnerable; there are major problems with the supply of labour with heavy reliance on migrant and marginal workers; work conditions are stressful and informal working relations limit employment protections; pay levels are low with instances of below minimum wages presenting challenges for employers to meet the new ‘living’ wage; reductions in public funding for social care in a context of policy changes which focus on meeting the individual well-being through personalised services; and grave public concern reflected in the high level of regulation over the quality of care provided.   Often hidden from public view and regulation is the caring which undertaken privately in the home. The plight of migrant domestic workers has been identified as ‘domestic servitude’ within European and UK case law and by campaigners. However at a time of cut backs in public funding and greater reliance on self and family funding for care particularly for the elderly the potential to ‘cut corners’ and to rely on vulnerable migrant workers is growing. Restrictions on low skilled migration from outside the EU add additional pressures in a sector which needs more workers. Undocumented migrant workers are denied labour rights and such working is increasingly the subject of criminal sanctions.

What lessons might be learned from the way in which such issues are tackled within global supply chains? Do service sectors present different challenges for identifying and tackling modern slavery? Can similar forms of intervention and regulation be applied? What is the potential for civil society advocacy and monitoring? Are coalitions between unions and civil society organisations possible?