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Towards Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence

Government Response to the Transparency in Supply Chains Consultation

Author - Arjun Sharma

(Photo Credit: Leicester Mercury)[1]


On 5th July 2020, a Sunday Times undercover investigation highlighted alleged instances of exploitation in Boohoo’s supply chain.[2] A factory, manufacturing textiles for ‘Nasty Gal’ fashion garments, had been operating behind closed shutters in unsafe COVID-19 working conditions, throughout Leicester’s exceptional localised lockdown. The initial exposé revealed that labourers were working without gloves, masks or social distancing measures, all whilst earning well under the national minimum wage (as little as £3.50/hour).

Alison Levitt QC’s review found further health and safety breaches, including locked fire doors and no access to clean drinking water.[3] The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority are now investigating similar instances of modern slavery in over 200 sweatshops in Leicester.[4]

Unfortunately, the UK’s modern slavery problem goes far beyond the East Midlands, and even the private sector. Recent investigations have accused Top Glove and WRP, Malaysian suppliers of PPE for the NHS, of subjecting migrant workers to forced labour, illegal wage deductions, debt bondage and minimum wage breaches.[5] The incessant focus on reducing costs has resulted in both businesses and public services turning a blind eye to risks of modern slavery in their supply chains.

In 2015, the UK led global efforts to combat modern slavery and human trafficking by enacting the Modern Slavery Act. Under Section 54 (Transparency in Supply Chains), all organisations that (i) supply goods or services and (ii) have a total turnover of greater than £36 million are required to prepare modern slavery and human trafficking statement.

This report must outline either (i) the steps the organisation has taken to ensure that slavery is not taking place or (ii) that no such steps have been taken.

While such legislation is a step in the right direction, the human rights abuses in Leicester and Malaysia indicate that the reporting requirement has a limited functional impact. Indeed, the UK has fallen behind new accountability standards introduced throughout European national legislation, such as the French ‘Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law (2017) or the Dutch ‘Child Labour Due Diligence Law’ (2019).

On 22nd September 2020, the Government published its response to the Transparency in Supply Chains Consultation, which had examined proposed changes to the Modern Slavery Act following an independent review. In her foreword, the Home Secretary highlighted her resolve to ‘future-proof the Modern Slavery Act’s transparency legislation’ as a response to the ‘deeply concerning allegations of exploitation in Leicester’s garment industry’.[6] The Consultation’s three main areas of the proposed reform, which shall be examined in turn, are necessary if we are to eradicate modern slavery by 2030.[7]

(i) The Content of Statements

Currently, a statement may include information concerning matters listed under s.54(5), such as an organisation’s:

(a) Business and supply chain structure

(b) Policies regarding modern slavery and human trafficking