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I beg to move,
That this House
is concerned about the practice of modern slavery and the exploitation of labour in the supply chains of supermarkets in the UK;
notes this week marks world food day and anti-slavery day;
recognises the global leadership that the Government has shown in tackling modern slavery in supply chains in the Modern Slavery Act 2015;
and calls on the Government to help ensure that steps are taken to protect the workers and farmers who produce food.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this debate and to my co-sponsors, my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, and Julian Sturdy. Unfortunately, neither of them is able to join us.
From the recent industrial action by staff at McDonald’s, Wetherspoon’s and TGI Fridays to the International Labour Organisation’s estimate of more than 1.1 million victims of slavery working in the agricultural sector, that is all part of the same picture, showing that the cheap food we often take for granted all too often comes at a human cost. Today is World Anti-Slavery Day, and Tuesday was World Food Day, so this is a fitting time to start looking seriously at how we end this exploitation.
Long after the Morecambe bay disaster in 2004, when 21 Chinese illegal migrant labourers drowned while picking cockles, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is still finding cases of human trafficking and slavery in the UK food industry. Earlier this year, a Cornish gangmaster who systematically exploited her workers—skimming off their pay, sending them to work double shifts with insufficient breaks and charging them to live in unsanitary caravans—was shut down by the GLAA. In Kent, 16 Lithuanian farm workers won a case against two gangmasters who forced them to work under threats of violence and kept them in squalid living conditions. Two other Lithuanian workers were trafficked to work in a meat processing plant, had their pay withheld and were subjected to violence. Their traffickers were sentenced to just three and a half years in jail.
There are numerous other examples from the meat-processing sector. A chicken factory in America was discovered to be employing illegal and under-age workers, blackmailing them to work for minimal pay in unsafe conditions under the threat of deportation. Quite often it is undocumented migrants who are most vulnerable to exploitation. Workers at the chicken factory were found to be wearing nappies at their post because they were not allowed to take toilet breaks.
The tomato industry is also rife with exploitation. Some 60% of UK tinned tomatoes come from southern Italy, where illegal gangmasters, who are part of organised crime, control worker recruitment and supervision. This is an extremely lucrative business, profiting from what an Italian prosecutor described as “conditions of absolute exploitation”. By contrast, in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has transformed the tomato sector, aiding prosecutions of slavery operations, forging alliances between farm workers and consumers, and leveraging consumer power to put pressure on the big supermarket buyers to end exploitation. That has now been rolled out to other American states, and it is a fantastic organisation.
The seafood sector is particularly notorious. In Ireland, a permit scheme for fishermen has seen African and Asian men trafficked on to trawlers, doing 20 hours a day of manual labour, legally bound to the employer and too scared to speak up for fear of arrest or deportation. Ireland now has a tier 2 ranking for trafficking—on a par with Indonesia and India—due to the Government’s failure adequately to protect victims and successfully convict traffickers.
The Environmental Justice Foundation uncovered horrific examples of slavery in the Thai seafood sector. Workers were tortured and abused, with wages, food and sleep withheld. Some men were kept at sea for months on end, being transferred from one ship to another without ever seeing dry land. They were force-fed methamphetamines to keep them working for longer, and bodies were thrown overboard when they were unable to go on. Some 59% of fishing workers had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker.
There is also evidence of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar being trafficked from camps, and even detention centres, and sold to Thai fishing vessels as slaves, yet millions of pounds’-worth of seafood products are still imported to the UK from Thailand every year. I want to make it clear that this is not just something happening overseas that has little to do with us. These are products on our supermarket shelves, and we are eating them without realising their links with slavery.
The problem in the maritime industry is much closer to home. Around our shores, vessels working in and out of British ports are employing migrant labour—sometimes illegally and sometimes legally—and paying those workers as little as $400 or $500 a month. That is much less than the minimum wage in this country, but those vessels are working in and out of British ports, supplying goods and produce to the British market.
My hon. Friend is detailing some horrific abuse. Unfortunately, I have seen examples of modern-day slavery in the agricultural sector in my constituency. Will she join me in praising the work of the Co-operative party, and particularly its charter on modern-day slavery? The charter raises issues of responsible procurement in food supply chains and the need to ask difficult questions about, for example, abnormally low tenders being given to ensure that modern-day slavery is not being used in those food supply chains.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I chaired a joint event last night between the APPG on human trafficking and modern slavery and the APPG on agriculture and food for development. One point made powerfully was that while we want the Government and the supermarkets to act—I will come to that in a moment—we must also look at procurement. The Government could be incredibly powerful if their procurement policies made it clear that they would not source from companies that could not give absolute assurance that there was not slavery in their supply chain.
I mentioned the Thai fishing sector. The Foreign Office should be doing more to support human rights defenders such as Andy Hall, whom I have been in contact with for many years. He has exposed some of the worst practices in food producing there, starting with the pineapple sector, and I think he is now writing about the chicken sector. He has been threatened, harassed and pursued through the courts as a result, and I do not think the Foreign Office is doing enough to support him.
The examples that I have given are clearly abhorrent and illegal, but it is also unacceptable that small-scale farmers and workers producing Indian tea and Kenyan green beans—common items in our supermarkets—are earning less than half of what is needed to ensure a basic but decent standard of living. When women working on grape farms in South Africa were surveyed, 90% reported not having enough to eat in the previous month. These are things that we take for granted; a grape is, to an extent, a luxury item, yet the women producing them cannot feed themselves or their families. If buyers were prepared to pay just three cents more per melon to a producer in Honduras and less than two cents on a banana in Guatemala, that would give those workers a living wage.
A big part of the problem is the supermarket model itself. It provides us with unparalleled choice. We can buy products from all over the world, all year round, at low prices and at our convenience. Retailers are increasingly operating in challenging circumstances, under threat from the discounters and online competition, and this is leading to over-consolidation. Tesco and Carrefour have teamed up to buy products. The planned merger between Sainsbury’s and Asda would see them control more than 30% of the UK groceries retail market. They have promised that, if the merger goes ahead, they will cut shelf prices on key items by 10%, which will cause yet more downward pressure on prices for suppliers. Supermarkets now keep an increasing amount of the money their customers spend—as much as 50% in some cases.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her leadership on this issue. On the Asda-Sainsbury’s merger, is she concerned that Sainsbury’s is withdrawing its Fairtrade brands in its supermarkets?
I was not actually aware of that point, so I thank my hon. Friend for bringing it to my attention. I am very concerned to hear that that is the case.
As I was saying, supermarkets now keep as much as 50% of the money their customers spend, while the share that reaches workers and food producers has fallen, sometimes to less than 5%. Oxfam’s research has found a direct correlation between drops in the prices paid by the supermarkets to suppliers and the risk of increasing human rights violations in supply chains. This is basically propelling a race to the bottom on wages and rights. Slavery and labour exploitation typically happen towards the bottom of supply chains, where things can get very murky and there is a lot less transparency. It is not just the cost savings that are not passed down; there is also a greater risk in that we are much more likely to see pesticide poisonings and other health and safety violations.
For example, the import price for pineapples from Costa Rica to Germany, primarily for supplying Aldi and Lidl, fell by about 45% between 2002 and 2014, despite increasing production costs. Oxfam has documented conditions on two pineapple farms in Costa Rica, which included poverty wages, subcontractors demanding monthly commissions, penalties or dismissal for workers who wanted to organise, and pesticides being sprayed while workers were in the fields.
There are other unfair practices that contravene the groceries supply code of practice’s principle of fair dealing. Fairtrade’s research into the banana sector found that banana farmers bear the cost if the retailers’ forecasts are wrong. In the worst instance, banana farmers reported receiving late changes to orders in 40 out of the 52 weeks in the year. Feedback Global has revealed the unrealistic specifications buyers use to reject produce from vegetable producers in Kenya, where on average 30% of production is discarded at farm level and another 20% prior to export—that is 50% of their produce—largely on cosmetic grounds. There is virtually no domestic market for these crops and alternative buyers cannot be found at short notice.
What can we do about this? For a start, we as consumers can do more. We can buy Fairtrade, which is the only initiative that requires a minimum price for producers and has a mandatory trader standard. We can use our consumer power to demand more of our supermarkets, using the Oxfam “Behind the barcodes” scorecard to track their progress. As the chief executive officer of Divine Chocolate has said:
“We live in times where, on the one hand, the turnover of the world’s biggest supermarket group is higher than the Gross National Income of Norway or Nigeria, and, on the other, where most of the world is dependent on smallholder producers for at least 80% of its food. Supermarkets have a responsibility to those producers, and we have more power than we think to call them to account.”
The food sector can certainly do more. In the EU, just 10 supermarket groups account for over half of all food sales. Just 50 food manufacturers account for half of all global food sales. If they act, that will make a huge difference.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful and, actually, a very upsetting speech. In particular, she mentioned Kenyan bean farmers, and a lot of us thought we were doing some good when we bought those beans. Does she agree that, along with the supermarkets, we need to look at the wider catering industry, food processing and cafés, which often like to portray themselves as fair and good trading environments? Does she also agree that we need some system that enforces such regulations across the sector?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am focusing today on supermarkets because that is where it is easiest for customers to interface and because they so powerful within the market. However, there are many big food manufacturers and others throughout the supply chain, as she says, that need to step up to the mark as well.
When I was serving as a councillor, I took part in opening a supermarket in the Asda chain, and it was fascinating to talk to those involved about how they judge customer satisfaction on, for example, gluten-free or vegetarian foods. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when the giant supermarkets look at opening such stores, if customers demanded fairer trade and better deals with those they were purchasing from, those supermarkets would start responding to customer demand?
One point is that there is just so little transparency. A limited range of goods is covered by Fairtrade certification. It tends to cover commodities such as coffee, cocoa, bananas and so on. We need far greater transparency. During the horsemeat scandal, there were stories about lasagne selling for £1 that had traversed about 13 or 14 EU countries, with dozens of small products going into making this probably highly unappetising meal. It is so difficult to trace that, but we do need to make a start.
I am one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on Fairtrade. Further to the points made by my colleagues, is my hon. Friend aware that in the Sainsbury’s case, it was actively attempting—in my view—to deceive consumers by labelling its tea as “Fairly Traded”, when it was not in fact certified as Fairtrade tea by the Fairtrade Foundation. In fact, Sainsbury’s was severely criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority, and I think one of its adverts was banned. I, my hon. Friend Stella Creasy and others raised this with the ASA. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally unhelpful for supermarkets and others to be doing that and actively trying to deceive consumers?
I absolutely agree. I also think that big companies can have a Fairtrade brand that might account for 5% of its sales, but the rest of their coffee or tea does not carry that certification, so what does that say about the conditions under which that share of the market is produced?
My hon. Friend has reminded me that, in the supermarket trade, food that is all made in the same place is given different labels for different supermarkets. We should also be looking at how that is exploited.
I agree. That is very much about the complexity of the supply chain and the need for greater transparency.
If the supermarkets and the big food companies act, that could make a huge difference. Oxfam has found that all the major supermarkets in the UK—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, Lidl and Aldi—lack sufficient policies to protect the human rights of the people they rely on to produce our food. Oxfam’s “Behind the barcodes” scorecard provides supermarkets with a rating based on their transparency, accountability and treatment of workers, farmers and women. Aldi languishes at 1%, while Morrisons and Lidl are at 5%. The highest scoring is Tesco, at a still fairly unimpressive 23%. However, I was pleased that Tesco came along to the joint APPG meeting yesterday, and it seems very willing to try to improve that score.
There are key actions supermarkets can take, from conducting human rights due diligence in line with UN guiding principles on business and human rights to respecting living wage and income benchmarks in supplier negotiations. Needless to say, they should be paying their own staff the living wage too. Supermarkets need to end the fantasy of social audits, which are almost entirely for PR purposes. They need to engage constructively with trade unions throughout the supply chain that are working to ensure real living wages, root out bad practices and provide a route for whistleblowers—whether that is Unite and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union in the UK; Nautilus, the seafarers union, which has already been mentioned; or global framework agreements with the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations.
The Government can also do more. With the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK became the first country in the world to require large businesses to report on the steps they are taking to eliminate slavery from their supply chains, but there have been only 13 convictions in the past 18 months. The Government must do more to ensure that all businesses are compliant with the law, with tough financial penalties if they are not. A new evidence briefing from the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner and the University of Nottingham has found that just 19% of the agriculture sector is abiding by the terms of the Modern Slavery Act.
My hon. Friend is right to mention the role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and I am sure she agrees that the independence of that role is critical to its success in unrolling the strategy and holding the Government to account. The first commissioner, Kevin Hyland, who did a great job, took a strong stance in calling for enhanced application of the transparency in supply chains section, but he cited Home Office interference as one reason he has resigned from his post. The job application for his successor impedes that independence by requiring them to set a programme of work with the Home Office and to have their performance appraised by the Home Office. Does she agree that it is vital that the Minister gives us the assurance that the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner can operate with true independence?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I certainly hope that the Minister will reply to it in her winding-up speech.
As I said, only 19% of the agricultural sector is abiding by the terms of the Modern Slavery Act. By contrast, the rate of compliance with the new gender pay gap reporting rules was 87% on day one of the first year of reporting.
If we can get 100% on gender pay gap reporting, we ought to do an awful lot better on modern slavery reporting.
The Home Office review of the Modern Slavery Act is welcome, and I hope it will result in much-needed measures to strengthen it and its implementation. I welcome the appointment as chairs of Mrs Miller and my right hon. Friend Frank Field, who unfortunately has had to go back to his constituency, where “Songs of Praise” is being recorded, otherwise he would be here.
If the Government want to lead on this issue internationally, a law of due diligence, whereby companies need to demonstrate they are actively seeking to end slavery in supply chains, would be a good place to start. A wider definition of supply chain liability is needed, so that real or feigned ignorance is not a justifiable excuse when instances of slavery are revealed. We also need better support for victims. I very much support Lord McColl of Dulwich’s Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which would extend the proposed 45 days of additional support to 12 months. We can see how victims of slavery are terrified of coming forward because of the risk of deportation.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way one more time—she is being very generous. I am interested in the point she has just made about supermarkets taking responsibility. Does she think that the onus needs to be on supermarkets, and that ignorance of slavery further down the supply chain should be their responsibility? They should be more proactive in going out there and seeking evidence that there is no slavery, rather than waiting to be caught out.
I certainly think that. At the all-party group yesterday, we heard from someone from ASOS, the online clothes firm, who talked about all the measures it takes. It has really complex supply chains, sourcing products from all around the world—not just finished garments, but material, zips and buttons—yet it seems to be able to do it, so I do not see why supermarkets cannot. They should be doing it on food safety and on other issues as well, so they ought to be doing it on modern slavery.
The Agriculture Bill will require more data from the agri-food sector on supply chain fairness. That will get some information out there that can be used, like the Oxfam scorecard, to put pressure on the supermarkets to change their practices. However, there is nothing in the Bill about such data being used for a legally enforced purpose. Having been a member of the Public Bill Committee, I hope we can change that. I raised this issue this morning at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and I got a response from the Farming Minister about the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, but I am slightly concerned that he did not seem to link it in with discussions about modern slavery. I would hope that as a result of this debate he and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, can have a conversation. The International Labour Organisation has said that the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector is the fourth largest sector for the incidence of slavery, so it certainly needs to be on DEFRA’s radar.
I also asked the Farming Minister in Select Committee whether he would support the EU’s unfair trading practices directive, covering the whole of the supply chain, which will extend to producers selling into the EU from overseas. Naturally, the Minister told me that the Government would prefer to deal with this on a national basis, but we do need a firm commitment that the Government will follow the EU’s lead and establish themselves as a good and responsible customer so that we do not end up losing the preference of suppliers post Brexit—why would they sell to us when they do not get the same protection they would get from selling elsewhere? Another step the Government can take is to support the adoption of a binding UN treaty on business and human rights that holds companies legally accountable for human rights violations along their supply chain.
There is another reason for holding this debate now. There are too many in this place who enthusiastically extol the opportunities of getting our hands on even cheaper food in the post-Brexit world, but that would come at a terrible price: a race to the bottom on food standards, food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections, and the continued exploitation of workers around the globe. The key message I want to get across today is that cheap food comes at a cost, and the cost is often met by the workers. Cheap food is not the solution to food insecurity. Food bank use is driven by low pay and insecure work, benefit freezes, sanctions and delays, and spiralling housing costs. Something has gone very wrong when a local advice centre tells me it has been helping a client who could not afford to eat, but she could not get to the food bank because it was only open when she was at work—at Tesco.
We also need to be cautious, as I mentioned at DEFRA questions this morning, about Government plans to bring in seasonal migrant workers to fill labour shortfalls after Brexit. Focus on Labour Exploitation—FLEX—has warned that temporary migration programmes that tie workers to a single employer would mean workers are unable to defend themselves if they are paid less than promised or if they are expected to work longer hours and in worse conditions than initially agreed.
In conclusion, I represent a city, Bristol, that was built on the back of the slave trade, the hideous and now unimaginable trade in Africans and in slave-produced commodities such as sugar, chocolate, coffee, cotton and tobacco. Bristol is now one of the leading fair trade cities in the world and at the forefront of efforts to stamp out modern slavery. Our city is home to anti-slavery organisations such as Unseen and TISCreport that are, like Mayor Marvin Rees, committed to stamping out this horrendous crime, making the commitment to be the world’s first transparent city at a time when most did not even know what that meant. Slavery is not just a terrible episode in history. Some 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves from the 15th century to the 19th century while slavery was legal, but the “Global Slavery Index” estimates that more than 40 million people live as slaves today.
When the current Prime Minister came to office, she vowed to personally work to eradicate this “barbaric evil” and
“great human rights issue of our time”.
But as with many promises, I fear that the Government’s ambition may be slipping. I hope the Minister can provide some reassurance today that that is not the case.
Supermarkets have decimated high streets, destroyed livelihoods and distorted the food chain. The exploitation to which Kerry McCarthy drew the attention of the House is not an aberration and is not marginal to supermarkets; it is intrinsic to their business model.
In my lifetime—I should say my short lifetime—I remember parades of shops on council estates, like the one on which I was brought up, across the whole of the country; shops run independently by people who knew their customers and knew those who supplied them. They had an interest in ensuring that their practices were sufficiently ethical to maintain their customer base and to preserve quality relationships with their suppliers. In my lifetime, farmers and growers in my constituency could sell the goods they made to a variety of people in a variety of places. They could go to local markets. They could sell in local produce auctions. They could walk away from deals if they were not fair, reasonable and ethical. In my short lifetime—I emphasise that again, Madam Deputy Speaker—our high streets were vibrant places. Our towns and cities were made lovelier by the variety and particularity that one found there. Sadly, all of that is no longer the case. What Napoleon called a nation of shopkeepers has become a nation of automated checkouts with contactless cards. We are all worse off as a result.
I want to deal in particular with the exploitation that the hon. Lady mentioned, and which I have said is implicit in the food chain model we have created. It is inevitable that farmers and growers must sell to the handful of places available to buy their goods. A report issued in 2000 by the Competition Commission demonstrated that a business able to control as little as 8% of the market has sufficient means to engage in exploitative trading practices. The big supermarkets do not control 8% of the market or even double that. Combined, the five big supermarkets control the vast majority of the United Kingdom’s grocery market. That concentration of power, made worse by Tesco’s recent absorption of the wholesaler Booker, magnifies and exaggerates the potential for exploitation right through the food chain, with my farmers and growers in Lincolnshire unable to walk away from bad deals as they have nowhere else to sell their produce. We know what those bad deals look like: up-front payments and delayed payments for the goods that suppliers provide, and sometimes, suppliers being obliged to fund “marketing campaigns” on behalf of retailers. Payments are now delayed for an average of 45 days, which puts small and medium-sized businesses on the brink of survival, as the supermarkets routinely engage in these practices.
The Agriculture Bill is welcome. Clause 25 gives new powers to Government— thanks to the insight, will and vision of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, no doubt—to take action against supermarkets that behave in the ways I have described. I have implored him to use those powers with alacrity and determination, for they are needed. The supermarket adjudicator, introduced when I was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has also made some progress, although I would like to see her powers extended and used more liberally.
However, we must do much, much more, because as well as the exploitative practices that the hon. Member for Bristol East raised and which I have tried to amplify, we must consider the character of our high streets. Most towns now suffer from out-of-town developments that draw people away from the small shops that remain. With footfall decreasing, fewer shops can survive, because they rely on busy town centres to attract their customers.
Hon. Members know the scene as well as I do in large parts of Britain, with boarded-up shops, boarded-up banks and decimation in many places. People who do shop at out-of-town estates are forced to drive there, as they can no longer walk or cycle to the shops. They are encouraged to buy in large volume because they visit the shops infrequently, so there is then the problem of over-purchasing and food waste. We are told that around 30% of the food purchased ends up being thrown away. Encouraging over-buying more than offsets the claim from supermarkets that they have driven prices down. They may have kept prices down, but people no longer buy what they need; they buy much more than they need and much of it goes to waste.
Food waste is not just about the food that has been bought; the issue exists throughout the supply chain. From farm gate to fork, between 30% and 50% of food is estimated to be wasted. A lot of it never even gets on to supermarket shelves, and that is an absolute scandal. If food waste was a country, it would have the third highest carbon footprint in the world.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are any number of cases, for example, of suppliers having food rejected that they have grown to supply supermarkets, because it has not met the standard or because the supermarket has changed the volume that it requires. Much food goes to waste that was grown to meet the supermarket’s original need or requirement. That is another example of the sharp practice that I described.
The truth is that in constituencies across the country, this is the secret exploitation which dare not speak its name. Farmers, growers and food firms—primary and secondary producers—dare not say what I am saying today, because they know that if they did, they would no longer be permitted to sell their goods to the few people available to buy them. That is why the supermarket adjudicator finds it so difficult to get evidence. Even with the confidentiality that is part of her remit, people are still reluctant to tell the truth, because they so fear what the supermarkets might do in retaliation.
It is time for the Government to act. The Agriculture Bill is helpful—I was delighted when I read clause 25, as I said—but we need to think about planning reform. We need to encourage people back into town centres and to our high streets. We need to give the adjudicator additional powers to deal with these exploitative terms of trade. We need to protect the workers in supermarket businesses in the way that was highlighted by the hon. Lady, whom I congratulate on bringing this matter before the House. We also need to recognise that far from extending choice, supermarkets have restricted it. If the only place someone can go to buy their groceries conveniently and affordably is a single store in a single place, how is choice extended and protected?
The Government really need to step up, and no Minister is more capable of doing so than my great friend and Lincolnshire neighbour who will respond to this debate. I ought to pay tribute, too, to Carolyn Harris, who will sum up for the Opposition, because she is also a friend—there is no favouritism here. I know that they will both want to use this opportunity to expose this dreadful secret, as I have called it—this thing that dare not speak its name, this exploitation at the very heart of all that supermarkets do and are.
Before I close—this case is so self-evident that its amplification demands brevity rather than loquacity—I want to say that around the corner there is another spectre: the amalgamation of two supermarkets, with Sainsbury’s and Asda coming together. I spoke a moment ago about the consolidation of the market that resulted from the takeover of Booker by Tesco. This further step would give the combined business 30% of the market. I call upon the Competition and Markets Authority, which did so little about the Booker case, by the way, and which I have written to recently, to recognise in the investigation that has been announced that further consolidation of the groceries market will be injurious to the interests both of consumers and of those who supply them, with all the ill effects for the workers and customers that have been highlighted in this debate.
Let me end—I am coming to my peroration, and I like to give notice of that so that enthusiasm can build—by saying this: two futures are available to us, and we must choose which path we take. We can once again have vivid, vibrant, vital, vivacious high streets, full of eclecticism and particularity and full of choice, or we can have the dull, deadening, draining ubiquity of supermarkets, of out-of-town megastores. That choice is available to us, but we will only choose the first, to the immense benefit of the people, if we are determined to take decisive action to make that come true.
There is a cruel deception—this is an easy thing to misjudge—that the future lies in hands other than ours, that it is pre-determined, that we are somehow simply acting out a script written for us. In fact, the future can be as joyful as we choose it to be, and if it is not fixed, influenced and shaped by the people in this House, we will be failing in our duty to pursue the national interest for the common good.
During the Second Reading debate on the Agriculture Bill, I asked what was the point of seeking to protect our environment, animal welfare, human health and workforce rights through high standards imposed on our food creators in this country if we then allow food produced under less stringent regimes to undercut those high standards, and end up importing all our food from abroad.
Today is Anti-Slavery Day, and the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was enacted when our present Prime Minister was Home Secretary. If we are to give any traction to the laudable aims of that Act, we need to ensure that food producers, wherever they are in the world, cannot profit financially from slavery. I well recall the shock that I felt when we saw the news that Chinese cockle-pickers had been swept out to sea and drowned in Morecambe bay. Those people were virtually unpaid, and their lives were recklessly endangered, and ultimately squandered, by gangmasters who had no compunction about breaking immigration law, health and safety regulations and minimum wage law, all in the cause of providing cheap cockles for whichever market they were selling to.
That was a headline case, but there have been plenty of stories of workers from other countries being exploited by gangmasters working in this country. Fruit pickers, vegetable pickers and other seasonal agricultural workers have been prominent among them, and that still goes on. There are workers who are nominally paid the minimum wage, but are charged for their journey to this country and their journey to work each morning, and charged over the odds for squalid housing. All those sums are deducted from their wages at source by the agents who have recruited them and are hiring them out to the organisations for which they are working.
If we are to protect people working in this country from exploitation—if we are to ensure that everyone working in this country is paid a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work—the Government must do far more to enforce the minimum wage by not just advising employers that they are breaking the law, but prosecuting and punishing them. Far more resources need to be put into investigating suspected offenders. There should be proper support for the victims of slavery and wage exploitation to encourage and enable them to act as witnesses, and there should be no easy ways to avoid the minimum wage by charging inflated rents for accommodation that is tied to employment, or exorbitant sums for transport to work.
I want our standards in this country to be something of which we can be proud, but if that is to happen, we need to ensure that we are not exporting slavery and exploitation to the third world by importing cheap goods produced under slavery conditions. Clearly the British minimum wage does not apply in other countries, but there are minimum conditions that should apply. If food is being produced through the use of indentured labour—labour provided under duress by prisoners, child labour, or even outright slavery—we have no business importing it and therefore giving financial support to the gangsters who are using those methods.
This is where the purchasing power of the supermarkets is so important. There is no excuse for them to pretend not to know or care about the conditions under which their food is produced. The big supermarkets in this country have ample resources with which to check the provenance of the food that they sell. We expect them to show due diligence throughout the supply chain in order to ensure that the food is safe to eat, and if they are doing that, they ought also to show due diligence in ensuring that it is produced fairly, without undue exploitation of the workforce.
I do not eat shellfish, but if I did, some of the stories that I have heard of exploitation in the far east, with young people being tricked, or even kidnapped, and then held as slaves to fish for shellfish on offshore platforms, would be enough to put me off. British people do not want to eat food that has been produced through the use of slave labour. British people do not want to see their fellow humans being exploited in this country either, and we want to know that those who work will be paid fairly for it.
It is time that the supermarkets realised that these things are important to their customers, and carried out thorough due diligence on all the products that they sell. I believe that they should be required to do that so that when we buy food in this country, we can know that it is not only safe, but ethically produced.
I commend Kerry McCarthy for tabling this important motion, but is it not sad that, in these supposedly enlightened times, we are still having to discuss the brutal practices of slavery? Forced labour, domestic servitude, people-trafficking—there is nothing modem about this. It is an age-old story of individuals being dehumanised and exploited by fellow human beings.
Workers have hard-fought rights in the United Kingdom, but it is easy for a blind eye to be turned to something nasty that is happening to people further down the line: those whose labour helped to put those shiny products on our supermarket shelves. When profit alone is king, there are always unscrupulous businesses that will callously treat people as commodities. Unless there is credible action to stop it, there will always be brands that will do the shady deals and say, “Nothing to see here,” or, “Nothing to do with me.” We need to shine a light on forced labour and the exploitation of workforces, and hold the companies at the top of the line responsible, too. In that way, we can drive these sickening practices from the supply chain.
I am not just talking about the appalling cases of people trafficked into slavery, such as those we have heard about involving Burmese and Cambodian crews on Thai fishing boats. Millions of workers are forced to labour for almost nothing in appalling conditions that violate their human rights. Oxfam’s excellent research reveals the shocking poverty and human rights abuses that are behind many common products on our supermarket shelves. For example, there are South African women farmers who pick grapes for our wine but cannot even feed themselves and their families. The highest-paid supermarket chief executive will earn more in less than five days than those women do in their entire lifetimes—let that sink in. Where women are the main labourers, the risk of exploitation is even worse.
The Oxfam researchers found that less than 6% of the consumer price was reaching small-scale farmers and growers, with supermarkets capturing over half the value of the products, which is more than in the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. Profits paid in dividends had dramatically risen in the UK since the 1970s. Business models are ever more strongly focused on increasing returns for shareholders instead of looking after the interests of all stakeholders.
The Modern Slavery Act was a much-needed, welcome piece of legislation. I commend the Government for the action that they have taken so far, and the Prime Minister for her own commitment on this issue. Those, I think, are efforts that we can all support.
Some supermarkets have taken steps to identify and deal with issues in their supply chains. I note, for example, the efforts of Marks & Spencer to improve transparency with an interactive supply chain map, including information on trade union membership recognition from its primary suppliers. There are also good news stories, such as the growing success of the Fairtrade market in the UK. More agreements are being reached with the big supermarkets to expand their Fairtrade products, which is fantastic news, but that, unfortunately, makes the news that we have just heard about the decision of Sainsbury’s to pull out of its commitment to Fairtrade even more disappointing.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the efforts of the Scottish Fair Trade Forum to encourage more suppliers to take on Fairtrade, and to persuade small as well as larger businesses to supply such products in their shops?
I certainly do. I am well aware of that, having attended Fairtrade coffee mornings in my constituency for the last couple of years. It is great to see people really getting behind the Fairtrade initiative.
Clearly, as the Government recognise, the picture is patchy, and there are many issues relating to how the measures in the Modern Slavery Act are working on the ground. Encouraging transparency and fairness is simply not enough. We know that agriculture, fishing and forestry businesses are amongst the highest-risk offenders in respect of forced labour worldwide, but a year after the Act came into force, only 19% of agriculture companies were doing all that is required to comply with section 54. Even when businesses do comply, it can be seen as little more than a box-ticking exercise—very little effort is made to get to the root of the problem. Companies must be made, not just encouraged, to comply. As all who have suffered at the hand of austerity since 2007 would agree, light-touch regulation is not enough.
The discovery of slavery in supply chains should hit businesses where it hurts most, and highlighting their brands, their profitability and those all-important dividends should be key. We should be shouting from the rooftops the names of those who take a stand, and holding liable all those who do not. We all have a responsibility to ensure that, wherever they come from, workers who help to put food and other products on our shelves earn enough to enjoy a decent, dignified standard of living.
I thank Kerry McCarthy for securing this important debate, and I am happy to have been called to speak in it.
It is time that we shone a light on the inequality and suffering that exists in the global supermarket chain, which is, as we have repeatedly heard today, nothing short of slavery. Of course, the real issue is that supermarkets have become hugely powerful, as Mr Hayes eloquently set out. Workers and small-scale suppliers and farmers across the globe, but perhaps particularly in developing countries where suppliers and workers are much more vulnerable to discriminatory policies, can face great suffering and unfairness due to this power imbalance. As the hon. Members for Bristol East, for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) reminded us, such exploitation is often closer to home as well, and is perhaps epitomised in our minds by the Morecambe bay tragedy involving the cockle-pickers.
We have heard much today—it was mentioned by my hon. Friend Deidre Brock—about Oxfam’s important “Ripe for Change” report, which presents new and alarming evidence of the suffering faced by women and men behind the supermarket barcodes. While it is positive that UK supermarkets help to create jobs in developing countries, that cannot blind us to the outrage of human and labour rights abuses in the supply chains of the foods we eat. My hon. Friend reminded us of that in powerful terms.
Oxfam reminds us of forced labour aboard fishing vessels in south-east Asia, poverty wages on Indian tea plantations, and the hunger faced by workers on South African grape farms, as was well set out by the hon. Member for Bristol East. We see gross global inequality and escalating climate change, which must be increasingly unsustainable.
The fact is that in this global market, supermarkets choose their products from all over the world, moving between countries and suppliers as the seasons change, with all sorts of fruit and vegetables being sold at all times of the year. But cheap food and all-year-round choice come at a price, and that price is that the big retailers exert huge and intense pressure on suppliers to cut costs while at the same time demanding the highest quality.
Prices paid to suppliers continue to be squeezed, as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings set out, while there is inadequate support for small-scale farmers and workers from Governments in producer countries, and those factors have increased the risk of human and labour rights violations. This manifests itself in such practices as exploitative child labour and unpaid female labour, and if we could see them for ourselves every day as we bought our produce, it would make us feel very uncomfortable. As the hon. Member for Ipswich pointed out, supermarkets must know how their suppliers operate, and if they do not know, they should.
We all want our grocery bills to be as low as possible, but how many consumers are truly aware of the real cost of cheap groceries? All too often, the cost is that those who produce the food on our supermarket shelves are themselves trapped in poverty and face brutal working conditions, with many going hungry. Oxfam has indicated that, sadly, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda, Lidl and Aldi are increasingly squeezing the prices they pay suppliers, with less and less of the price we pay at the till reaching the small-scale farmers and workers who actually produce the food we eat.
Alarmingly, of the supply chains Oxfam looked at, none enabled people to earn enough for even a basic standard of living, and in some cases, including the production of Indian tea and Kenyan green beans, it was less than half of what they needed to get by, as the hon. Member for Bristol East reminded us. Women face routine discrimination, often providing most of the labour for the lowest wages. More than nine out of 10 of the grape workers in South Africa and seafood processors in Thailand surveyed—most of whom were women—said they had not had enough to eat in the previous month, and several Members, including the hon. Member for Bristol East and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, have pointed that out. We have heard from a number of Members about how the cheap food we buy in supermarkets comes at the cost of squeezing prices paid to suppliers, which then creates huge suffering for the women and men who supply this food, trapping them in poverty.
All today’s speeches have been excellent and I thank Members who have attended the debate.
We can draw a comparison with the clothes sector. We reached a point some years ago when people started realising that if we can buy a pair of jeans for £3 in a supermarket, something must be wrong, with somebody somewhere down the line being exploited if that product could be produced so cheaply. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to do the same with our food and start questioning why it is so cheap?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The debate around how we change the culture of our cheap clothing and cheap food is about making sure that our consumers are as well informed as they can be when they go out to do their shopping, whether to buy clothes or groceries. When the public see the cost behind the cheap price, many are moved to change how they shop and what they buy.
Across 12 common products including tea, orange juice and bananas, UK supermarkets receive almost 10 times more of the checkout price than the small-scale farmers and workers who produce them. The UK supermarkets’ market share rose from 41% in 1996 to nearly 53% in 2015 and, as the hon. Member for Bristol East demonstrated, this represents a race to the bottom in terms of what is paid to suppliers.
Oxfam and the Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia examined the working conditions in prawn processing plants and exporters in Thailand and Indonesia respectively, which supply some of the world’s biggest supermarkets, including the six UK supermarkets. Workers described forced pregnancy tests, unsafe working conditions, poverty wages, strictly controlled bathroom and water breaks, and verbal abuse.
Supermarkets should lead the way ethically if positive change is to happen in our food supply chains. That is why Oxfam’s new supermarkets scorecard, which rates and ranks the most powerful UK supermarkets on the strength of their public policies and practices to address human rights and social sustainability, should be welcomed. These challenging benchmarks, based on robust and international standards, and widely recognised best practice on transparency, accountability and the treatment of workers, small-scale farmers and women in supply chains, will allow our consumers across the UK to make more informed choices. They will help to effect change in supermarkets’ practices and encourage them to address the suffering in their supply chains. As we have heard, when consumers have more information, that affects how they purchase and what they buy.
Does the hon. Lady agree that while it is true that supermarkets should, ethically, carry out this due diligence, something in legislation requiring them to do so would be more powerful?
Absolutely. In the past, what has worked best is a carrot-and-stick approach. The Government can lay down regulations and insist by law that certain things are done by supermarkets in the supply chain in this country, but the power of the consumer cannot be overestimated. This is a two-pronged approach, therefore, and we need both these approaches.
We need firmer regulation to protect the rights of farmers and workers. We have modern slavery legislation, but it is important that we continue to be committed to challenging all practices that put people at risk of suffering within our supply chains by convening other nations against modern slavery, as the UK has done at the UN for the last two years.
Engagement with the ongoing independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, ensuring the promotion of transparency within global supply chains, and a commitment to the UN guiding principles relating to business and human rights are essential. Supporting the UN binding treaty on business and human rights is required, too, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say today. As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, many who fear a race to the bottom in food standards and who raise concerns about these matters think they will only be exacerbated post Brexit.
We can do more to mitigate and ease the suffering on a global scale in our supermarket supply chains. We should do what we can, and as a matter of urgency. I am sure that today’s debate has raised the profile of this issue, and I hope that consumers will begin to exert pressure of their own in the choices they make, but we need to do more to ensure that supermarkets themselves are confronted with the part they play in this suffering and abuse of workers and small-scale farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world. That is how real change will come, but the UK Government must play their part, and I am keen to hear the Minister’s response as to how her Government will address the very serious issues raised today.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee, and to colleagues for their excellent speeches. What we have lost in quality we have certainly gained in quantity—or the other way round. [Interruption.] Or maybe not.
Human trafficking and modern slavery are thriving throughout our international economy, from our grapes and our coffee beans to the tuna we put on our sandwiches. The cost to human life and basic human rights is truly astonishing. Only 12% of Thai fishermen have said that they have fair working conditions, and an estimated 50% of Thai fishermen are known to have been trafficked. As we know, this is not just happening overseas. In Cornwall, in Kent and on the Cambrian coast in Wales, our car washes, our nail bars, our construction sites and the restaurants that we visit are all hotspots for the evil traffickers.
Oxfam’s recent report, “Ripe for change: ending human suffering in supermarket supply chains”, highlights the scale of slavery throughout the food and goods industry. In the UK, the grocery sector is one of the most diverse and sophisticated in the world, worth nearly £185 billion a year. Supermarkets have delivered low prices and year-round choice to many consumers in the UK, but they have done so by using their huge buying power to exert relentless pressure on their suppliers to cut costs while meeting exacting quality requirements, and they often use a range of unfair trading practices to do so. The depression of prices paid to suppliers, coupled with inadequate Government support in producer countries for small-scale farmers and workers, has increased the risk of human and labour rights violations and, as Oxfam has found, driven greater global inequality.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Does she agree that supermarkets have also extended the food chain so that it is now much less likely for someone purchasing a good to know its source? They pay lip service to traceability, but in a greatly extended food chain, exploitation is much more likely to occur.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I totally agree with him.
Taking Indian tea and Kenyan green beans as examples, the research by Oxfam found that workers and small-scale farmers earned less than 50% of what they needed for a basic but decent standard of living in their societies. The report also found that the gap between the reality and a decent standard of living was greatest where women provided the majority of the labour. In South Africa, over 90% of surveyed women workers on grape farms reported not having enough to eat in the previous month. Nearly a third of them said that they or a family member had gone to bed hungry at least once in that time.
In Thailand, over 90% of surveyed workers at seafood processing plants reported going without enough food in the previous month. In Italy, 75% of surveyed women workers on fruit and vegetable farms said that they or a family member had cut back on the number of meals in the previous month because their household could not afford sufficient food. In less than five days, the highest paid chief executive at a UK supermarket earns the same as a woman picking grapes on a typical farm in South Africa will earn in her entire lifetime. That is simply not good enough.
Large UK supermarkets lack sufficient policies to protect the human rights of the people they rely on to produce our food. Supermarkets need to act on human and labour rights, support a living wage and radically improve transparency of their own human rights and those of their suppliers. This is vital if our supermarket supply chains are not to be a breeding ground for trafficking. We must be persistent on this matter. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on supermarkets to do this on their own. We need the Government to enforce compliance with the Modern Slavery Act 2015. They must set out how they will measure decent work practices, reform company law and support the adoption of a binding United Nations treaty on business and human rights.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act is a very welcome provision, but does she agree that its effective enforcement will require a central register of all the companies that are required to comply?
I most certainly do, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that point. The Modern Slavery Act places a requirement on companies with a turnover of £36 million and above to publish a statement outlining what steps they are taking to tackle exploitation in their supply chains. However, the Act does not require companies to take action; it requires only that they make a statement saying what they are doing.
Perhaps I am pre-empting what my hon. Friend is about to say, but is it not also a problem that the companies’ statements sometimes say virtually nothing? They just have to tick a box to say that they have made a statement. They do not have to show that they are actually doing something to root out slavery in their supply chains.
Exactly. There is also a huge lack of information held on companies that have provided a statement, with a significant amount of companies providing no statement at all. Only 50% of the agricultural companies that fall within the scope of the Modern Slavery Act’s corporate reporting requirement have published a modern slavery statement, and only 38% of those statements were compliant with the requirements of the law, meaning that overall only 19% of the agricultural sector is abiding by the terms of the Act. Section 54 as currently implemented is not fit for purpose and has significant limitations. This is due to the inability to monitor compliance by businesses and no assessment of the quality of modern slavery statements being published. The Welsh Government have put together an ethical code of practice on supply chains and the Co-operative party has launched a modern slavery charter which looks at local council supply chains. These are both progressive moves, but it takes leadership at national level to ensure consistency in this approach.
The Government recently announced a new two-year pilot scheme to bring temporary migrant workers from outside the EU to work in the UK agricultural sector. The stated aim of the pilot is to ease labour shortages in the sector during peak production periods. Lessons from the UK’s previous seasonal agricultural workers scheme and similar temporary migration programmes in other countries show how these types of schemes can create conditions in which modern slavery and labour exploitation can thrive. If the Government are going to introduce migration policies that will increase risks to workers, they must also take the necessary steps to mitigate and prevent such risks in order to ensure that modern slavery does not flourish in Brexit Britain. They must ensure that labour inspectorates have the resources to ensure they can inspect this programme and protect workers, and temporary workers must be provided with information on their labour rights and given support to raise cases of abuse.
We need to work together to end human trafficking and labour exploitation, and we must eradicate modern-day slavery. Companies must be held to account for the ethical impact of their activities, particularly where poor business practices directly contribute to the severe exploitation of workers. Currently, the traffickers are winning. Vulnerable adults and children are being exploited on an industrial scale across the UK and internationally. It is time to take action. We must stop this practice now.
I thank Kerry McCarthy for securing the agreement of the Backbench Business Committee to hold this debate. We can all agree that it has been valuable and has sent out clear messages to the businesses and people involved in increasingly complex international supply chains about the expectations not just of the House, but of the public at large. Although the hon. Member for Cardiff East said—[Interruption.] Forgive me, I meant Carolyn Harris—I am causing all sorts of trouble in Wales, sorry. My shadow number was right to say that what we have lacked in number we have more than made up for in quality and the range of issues raised across this debate. I hope Members will excuse me if I do not manage to answer all their points, but I hope to tackle a great many of them.
We are all agreed that modern slavery is an invidious and destructive crime that affects some of the most vulnerable people in society. This Government are determined to end this injustice and eliminate this exploitation in our communities and in the global economy. Since the passing of the landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015, we have seen more convictions and arrests every year and increased specialist support for victims. There are currently more than 950 live investigations into accusations of modern slavery, and the Government will invest at least £61 million this year alone into work to end modern slavery in the United Kingdom and abroad.
The quality of today’s speakers will become clear as I attempt to answer many of their excellent points. The hon. Member for Bristol East set out the complexity of international supply chains, and I know that she and others support the Prime Minister’s call at the United Nations last year for us to end slavery by 2030. It is an ambitious target to set ourselves, but the Prime Minister has clearly identified a will within the international community to do that. More than 80 countries have signed up to the call for action, and a great deal of work is flowing from that effort.
The hon. Member for Bristol East also mentioned seafood from Thailand, and I am pleased that she and other Members took the opportunity to educate and inform the wider public as to some of the conditions that we are learning of when it comes to how seafood is extracted from our seas. In fairness, some UK supermarkets, including Tesco and Morrisons, are members of the Seafood Task Force, an industry-led coalition of retailers, Governments and NGOs set up to address the human rights abuses and seafood supply chains that the hon. Lady so clearly identified in her speech. If she will bear with me, I will deal with her other points later.
Moving on with great excitement to the speech of my right hon. Friend Mr Hayes, my Lincolnshire colleague and friend reflected in his usual stylish way on the changes to the high street during his short lifetime. He painted a picture of the high streets in our county as they were only a few years ago and then the differences that we now face, describing with chilling accuracy the business conditions that many of his and my farmers in Lincolnshire face at the hands of large supermarkets. He made particular reference to delayed payments. Since April last year, all large UK businesses have had a duty to report publicly on their payment policies, practices and performance, because the Government recognise the helpfulness of transparency in driving change. If he or any other Member is aware of supermarkets that are not playing their part, I ask them to let me and the relevant Ministers know, so that we can ask why they are not doing what they are obliged to do.
My right hon. Friend and other Members also mentioned the proposed merger of Sainsbury’s and Asda. The Competition and Markets Authority is investigating independently, but I am pleased to note that the Select Committees on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote a joint letter in early May to the CMA raising concerns about the impact that the merger would have on the grocery supply chain and asking for details on the approach of any investigation. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy also wrote to the CMA in May to stress the importance of considering the possible impact on the supply chain, among other competition-related issues.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her complimentary remarks, which were delivered with her usual style. Will she also consider making the groceries code statutory? The code is voluntary and is largely ignored. In my judgment, a statutory code would protect suppliers, with all the beneficial effects that that would have right down the supply chain.
I hesitate to take responsibility for all the work of Government, as I fear that that is a matter for BEIS, but I will ask the relevant Minister to write to my right hon. Friend. Having listened to his speech carefully, I absolutely understand why he asked that question.
Patricia Gibson and the hon. Member for Swansea East both raised the important issue of women in supply chains, which I obviously take an extra interest in given my responsibilities as Minister for Women. Women and girls are often among the most vulnerable people working in global supply chains. They are more likely to be subject to sexual, mental and physical abuse, both within the workplace and while travelling to and from workplaces, and sadly they are regularly paid lower wages than their male counterparts. The Department for International Development is working to tackle the issue with its flagship initiative, the Work and Opportunities for Women programme. I know that acronyms are not allowed in the MOD, but the DFID acronym for that is WOW, and the programme will collaborate with British and global businesses, providing access to the latest expertise on women’s economic empowerment to improve outcomes for women and enable them to build more resilient, sustainable and productive supply chains.
Turning to transparency in supply chains, it is an uncomfortable truth that forced labour exists in the supply chains of products on our supermarket shelves, which is simply unacceptable. I welcome Oxfam’s research, which shines a light on the suffering of workers in supermarket supply chains. Agriculture and fishing is a particularly high-risk sector that is estimated to account for 12% of forced labour globally. Supermarkets and businesses in food supply chains clearly need to do more, but the truth is that no sector is immune from the risks of modern slavery. Almost all businesses will face the risk of modern slavery somewhere in their supply chains, which is why the world-leading transparency in supply chains provision in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires large businesses in the UK to publish an annual modern slavery statement.
Thousands of businesses are stepping up to the challenge and have published statements detailing the action they are taking to tackle modern slavery in their supply chains. Many are demonstrating their commitment by partnering with experts, changing their purchasing practices and reporting transparently about what they have done. Companies such as the clothing company ASOS and the Co-op are leading the way in being open and transparent about where they have identified modern slavery risks and what actions they have taken to put them right and prevent the problem from happening in the future. For example, the Co-op’s modern slavery statement disclosed that it had identified a case of modern slavery on a supplier’s farm in Nottinghamshire. As a result of Co-op working closely with their supplier, the police, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the Salvation Army, the victim was safeguarded and the perpetrator jailed for eight years.
I am also pleased to see that more and more companies, including Marks & Spencer, Unilever and Tesco, are signing up to the employer pays principle and taking steps to ensure that workers in their supply chain do not pay exploitative recruitment fees, which can often lead to debt bondage. Although large companies that meet the relevant turnover threshold are obliged under the Act to issue a statement on their supply chain, we are finding evidence that that is having a trickle-down effect on smaller businesses that do not reach the turnover threshold. It is a positive thing that companies are being required by their larger business partners to meet those standards so that the larger businesses can issue a statement.
I am conscious that, although thousands of businesses are taking their responsibility seriously, too many are still publishing poor-quality statements or are failing to meet their basic legal obligations. Today, the Home Office has begun to write directly to the chief executive officers of all 17,000 UK businesses believed to be within the scope of the Act. We have made it clear what their obligations are and how they can meet them. There are no excuses for non-compliance, and those businesses that continue to flout their legal obligations should understand that they can expect to face far tougher consequences.
Members have rightly said that this is about not just companies publishing statements, but the quality of those statements. Having written to those companies, the Home Office plans to audit the statements at the end of this financial year and to name non-compliant companies after that date. That is a significant development in transparency.
We will also be establishing a transparency in supply chains advisory group, with experts from the modern slavery sector and from the business community, to help inform our approach to tackling slavery in public and private sector supply chains. Later this year, we will be revising the business guidance on modern slavery reporting, and businesses can now register on the modern slavery contacts database for guidance and resources to help them report effectively.
Of course, the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, chaired by Frank Field, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and a noble baroness, will consider how the transparency provision is working and what measures we can take to ensure it is as effective as it can be. I hope that shows the Government’s direction of travel on this important issue.
The crucial action for these companies to take is to set meaningful targets, report on them and strive to make year-on-year progress in addressing these risks. We recognise that identifying and addressing modern slavery can be a complex task, which is why we are strengthening the guidance we are giving to businesses. We are also funding projects run by experts, including the Ethical Trading Initiative and Stronger Together, to support UK businesses in training their suppliers and addressing the risks in their global supply chains.
The Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner is an important part of this analysis, and hon. Members have mentioned the commissioner’s independence. As I have said in other debates, I have always found Mr Hyland to be incredibly independent and independent-minded, and I very much enjoy working with him. To reassure the House on this important appointment, we remain absolutely committed to the commissioner’s independence, and we are considering how this role can be further strengthened as part of the modern slavery review.
The Government recognise the importance of labour market enforcement and have continued to strengthen their response to exploitation in the UK labour market. We have created the role of director of labour market enforcement, who is responsible for producing an annual strategy that provides an assessment of the scale and nature of non-compliance in the labour market and sets strategic priorities for the three main enforcement teams in this field: the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and HMRC’s national minimum wage team.
Sir David Metcalf took on the role in January 2017 and published his first full annual labour market enforcement strategy in May 2018. The Government are considering Sir David’s recommendations for the three enforcement bodies and will publish their response shortly.
We have also given the GLAA powers, equivalent to police powers, to investigate serious cases of labour market exploitation across the entire economy in England and Wales. Just last year, the GLAA conducted more than 100 operations, leading to more than 100 arrests for suspected labour market offences across a range of sectors, including construction, hand car washes and hospitality. The GLAA has also done some excellent work in partnership with businesses to raise awareness of the signs of modern slavery and to share good practice within the agricultural, construction and textiles sectors. For example, the GLAA has partnered with Sainsbury’s to deliver training sessions to its suppliers so it can better identify and manage risks in its supply chain.
Just outside my constituency in Lincolnshire, the GLAA has partnered with Boston College, an important college in our local area, to help educate young people not just to spot the signs of modern slavery in and around the fields of Lincolnshire, but to know their rights when it comes to their own careers and jobs. We need to get the message out that young people should not feel they need to accept jobs that pay poorly or in which the conditions are not acceptable. This is part of a programme of education that I hope will be followed up across the country.
Colleagues have rightly mentioned the seasonal agricultural workers pilot, and it is a key objective of that scheme to ensure that migrant workers are adequately protected against modern slavery. The GLAA will license the scheme operators, and the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will closely monitor the scheme to ensure that operators adhere to the stringent requirements we have set to ensure workers’ safety and wellbeing, including paying the national minimum wage as a minimum.
The Government recognise that we have a responsibility to use all the levers we have to tackle this crime. As for any business, there are risks of modern slavery in the goods and services procured by the Government and the public sector. We are already leveraging our buying power and requiring bidders for central Government contracts to certify that they are compliant with the transparency requirement in the Modern Slavery Act. In June, the Cabinet Office announced that the Government’s biggest suppliers will be required to provide data and action plans to address key social issues, including modern slavery. We are stepping up our activity to address modern slavery risks in our own supply chain, and we will be supporting the wider public sector to take action.
Of course, modern slavery is an international, indeed global, issue that requires a global response, which is why the United Kingdom is playing a leading role in tackling modern slavery away from our shores. At last year’s United Nations General Assembly, the Prime Minister launched a global call to action to end modern slavery, and more than 80 countries endorsed that call to action and pledged their support.
Building on that work, at this year’s UN General Assembly, the UK—in partnership with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—launched a set of principles for combating modern slavery in supply chains. The principle set out the steps this country should take to prevent exploitation in both public and private sector supply chains. We are sharing lessons from our world-leading transparency and supply chains legislation with other countries, and Australia has looked to the UK for our experience and is now introducing legislation similar to ours.
We are also strengthening our bilateral relationships to tackle this crime. Those who take an interest in this area will know that, sadly, Albania features highly among those referred to the national referral mechanism. Last week, I met the Albanian Deputy Minister and committed to an ambitious £2 million package to support victims to rebuild their lives and to deter vulnerable people from falling into the hands of traffickers in Albania. Today, we are launching the second round of our modern slavery innovation fund, which will make £5 million available for new approaches to tackle modern slavery globally, and just yesterday the UK held its day of action for the Amina project, a cross-Europe project to prevent child migrants from becoming child slaves.
Colleagues asked about the draft EU directive on unfair trading practices, and although the UK supports the broad aims of the draft directive, it is important to ensure that the measures in it are proportionate and appropriate for each member state, so we have argued for greater discretion for member states in how they implement the provisions.
I have also been asked about the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and we are proud to have been the first country in the world to produce a national action plan responding to those guiding principles. As for the UN treaty, we are engaging in this process as part of the European Union and we are obviously carefully considering our approach to this proposed legally binding instrument.
To mark Anti-Slavery Day, buildings and businesses across the country will be lit in red tonight to raise awareness of this scourge on society, including buildings in Whitehall, Marble Arch in London, Cardiff City Hall and the Etihad stadium in Manchester. That will raise awareness and give the message that this problem affects us all and that we should take an interest in this incredibly important issue.
To eradicate this crime from our communities and economy, Government, businesses and society need to work together. We should continue to be ambitious in our expectations and approach. No production line, however far reaching, should ever involve the exploitation of human beings, and we are determined to ensure that the rights of those who grow and produce our food are valued and defended.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister for her response. She covered most of the points that were raised and I am sure she will go away and check whether there are any other points to which she could respond in writing. I have sometimes seen Ministers come along to the House and read from a piece of paper, showing no sign of having listened to the debate that they have just heard, so I thank her for not taking that approach and for giving a thoughtful and considered response.
I also thank everyone else who has contributed. As people have said, there might not have been a huge number of speakers, but everyone who contributed spoke with great passion and clearly felt very strongly about the issue. I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to speak at far more length than I am usually able to in this place, in that we often end up being called when a seven or six-minute limit has become a three-minute limit.
The food sector is a particular problem because of some issues that have been outlined today, and I urge the Minister to speak to her colleagues, particularly those in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who are responsible for the supermarket sector. We need to discuss this not just in the context of modern slavery and trafficking issues in general, but with a specific focus on how the food sector operates and how that gives rise to some of the horrific abuses we heard of today. I would be grateful if she did that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
is concerned about the practice of modern slavery and the exploitation of labour in the supply chains of supermarkets in the UK;
notes this week marks world food day and anti-slavery day;
recognises the global leadership that the Government has shown in tackling modern slavery in supply chains in the Modern Slavery Act 2015;
and calls on the Government to help ensure that steps are taken to protect the workers and farmers who produce food.