Ending Exploitation in Supermarket Supply Chains

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:29 pm on 18th October 2018.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 1:29 pm, 18th October 2018

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.