Modern Slavery Act 2015

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:23 pm on 26th October 2017.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 1:23 pm, 26th October 2017

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I welcome the Modern Slavery Act 2015, in particular section 54, on supply chains, which we had to fight quite hard for. Despite the legislation, as the National Crime Agency said earlier this year, modern slavery is steadily increasing. There are many industries in which modern slavery goes undetected, in everyday situations right under our noses. Twenty cases of modern slavery have been investigated in Bristol over the last year, including one involving eastern European workers who were exploited by a Bristol car wash and forced to work long hours for low pay. One had worked for 18 months without any pay at all, and it is believed that five others are in the same situation.

In July, police arrested four people on suspicion of human trafficking and slavery offences following a raid on a nail bar in Southmead in Bristol, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Darren Jones. Unseen, a Bristol-based charity that works to eradicate modern slavery and runs the UK-wide modern slavery helpline, is running the “Let’s Nail It” campaign, which aims to raise awareness and help to stop slavery in nail bars. I am happy to support the campaign—hence my bright pink nails today—as is Avon and Somerset police, which ended up being denounced by David T. C. Davies on the front page of The Sun for its efforts. However, it was right to do so: we need to bring people’s attention to what is happening right under their noses. Over the past 12 months, police in the wider Avon and Somerset area have dealt with 60 investigations and seen a significant increase in modern slavery-related intelligence. Calls to the helpline also went up following the awareness campaign.

However, the police need to be properly resourced. As my local police and crime commissioner and chief constable have said in their recent report, “The Tipping Point”, the police are being stretched to the point where they lack the resources to carry out basic policing functions, let alone mount investigations. Both the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have faced cuts to their capacity to deal with slavery offences. In 2014, the Migration Advisory Committee said that on average a firm could expect a visit from HMRC inspectors only once every 250 years.

Many of the calls about nail bars cite the physical or psychological state of workers, inappropriate sleeping accommodation on business premises, poor working conditions, lack of spoken English, cheap prices, cash-only transactions and concerns of abuse and violence—the workers seem intimidated by their bosses. Consumers need to be aware of these signs so that they are never unintentional supporters of organised crime. The Southmead nail bar raid was prompted by a tip-off from a member of the public who raised concerns about a woman’s welfare. Without that intervention, it could have taken a lot longer for the victim to be identified and taken to a place of safety.

People need to know how to spot the signs that modern slavery is happening in their community. Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse or appear withdrawn. They may have few possessions. They may always wear the same clothes and have no identification documents. They may all live and work at the same address. They may regularly be dropped off or collected for work either very early or very late at night. People need to be vigilant.

Finally, I want to say a bit about slavery in the food processing, fishing and agriculture sectors, which remains a huge issue. Unite the Union’s excellent “From Plough to Plate” report found that employers in those sectors are some of the worst exploiters of workers, with countless instances of abuse meeting the legal definitions of slavery and forced labour. Only last year, a group of 16 Lithuanian chicken farm workers won their case against two Kent-based gangmasters who had forced them to work under threat of violence and kept them in squalid living conditions. This was the first settlement of a claim against a British company in relation to modern slavery. In another 2016 case, two Lithuanian men had been trafficked to work in a meat processing plant. They had their pay withheld and were subjected to violence, but the traffickers were sentenced to only three and a half years in jail.

The Environmental Justice Foundation has done admirable work over the past five years in exposing modern slavery in Thailand’s seafood sector, uncovering widespread human trafficking and human rights abuses both in the pre-processing facilities and at sea. There have been examples of people being kept at sea for several years, being moved from ship to ship, and never reaching shore and being able to seek sanctuary. In April, the Environmental Justice Foundation reported that, despite reforms, forced labour continues to be widespread, citing the shocking statistic that 59% of Thai fishing workers had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker. Many more had been tortured and abused, and had wages, food and sleep withheld from them. This is directly linked to the supply chains of many major seafood companies around the world, including in the UK; millions of pounds of seafood products are imported from Thailand every year.

Moving on from seafood, another example, from just this week, is that two of Italy’s biggest tomato suppliers for UK supermarkets have been implicated in a range of labour abuses, in what have been described as “conditions of absolute exploitation”, with workers required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with minimal pay and no access to medical care. These are just a few examples of something that is incredibly widespread.

In 2015, The Economist described the supply chain transparency requirements in the Modern Slavery Act as “light touch”, with only 12,000 commercial companies affected. The Government need to go further. Submission of a full and comprehensive statement should be legally binding on all companies, with penalties for non-compliance that go beyond naming and shaming, and greater criminal liability for cases when practices of slavery or forced labour are found in a company’s supply chain or products.

Specifically in relation to the seafood sector and the fishing industry, the Environmental Justice Foundation is calling for: transnational approaches for all countries—port, flag and coastal states—to ratify and implement fully the International Labour Organisation’s convention 188 on work in fishing; all countries to implement legislation to prosecute national citizens engaged in human trafficking on vessels registered to another country; and retailers and the industry to establish effective transparency and traceability across their whole supply chain, including committing to independent, third-party and unannounced auditing of their supply chains.

Cheap products and services often come at an unseen cost. We need to ask ourselves: just how come prices in the shops are so low? If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Such products have no place on British shelves. Such services should never be used. We all need to play a role in suffocating slavery at source by exercising vigilance.