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With online fashion company, Boohoo, recently coming under criticism regarding modern slavery, it’s important to remind ourselves what modern slavery is and what companies can be doing to combat this.
The investigation into Boohoo follows an undercover report identifying workers based in Leicester making clothes reportedly linked to the company for a wage of £3.50 per hour. This is well below the National Minimum wage, which is currently £8.72 for workers over the age of 25.
It is the severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain. This can take many forms and can include forced labour, where people are forced to do work or provide services against their will under the threat of punishment.
Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, it is a criminal offence to hold another in slavery or servitude or require another person to perform forced compulsory labour. A company is therefore actively obliged not to engage any aspects of slavery.
There is also an obligation on companies of a certain size to prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement every year. This statement should be published on the company’s website and should set out the steps the company has taken to ensure that it's business and supply chains are slavery-free. This involves a detailed look at supply chains and each individual company’s responsibilities in terms of slavery. The statement may include information about: business structure, policies, due diligence processes, parts of the business identified as being at risk and the steps taken to assess and manage that risk, the effectiveness of ensuring slavery and human trafficking is not taking place (measured against possible performance indicators) and training available to staff.
For offences of slavery or servitude of forced or compulsory labour, a person is liable to imprisonment (which can be up to life if convicted on indictment) or a fine or both.
Where a company fails to produce a slavery and human trafficking statement, the Secretary of State has the ability to force the company to do so by way of an injunction. If the company fails to comply with the injunction, it will be deemed to be in contempt of a court order, which is punishable by an unlimited fine.
With both penalties, there is a clear risk of damage to company reputation and branding. It’s therefore really important to actively have processes and systems in place for monitoring the work undertaken and the services and goods provided by any supplier companies. These should be reviewed and updated as appropriate. The company should also have strategies in place for dealing with situations where it becomes apparent that the company or its suppliers are involved with modern slavery.