Modern slavery: what can SMEs do to prevent it?

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Modern slavery

We had a chat with Louise Chegwidden, who leads on STOP THE TRAFFIK’s work with fast moving consumer goods businesses to eradicate modern slavery from their business operations. We discussed what modern slavery is, why it’s relevant for SMEs, and what we can do about it.

So, first question, what is Modern slavery?

“Modern slavery can be defined as the use of deception or coercion for the purpose of exploitation.  It occurs when one individual uses threats, violence and other tactics to exploit another individual for their own personal or commercial gain. Crucially for businesses, the majority of cases involve the use of labour exploitation. Individuals are either forced or deceived into working whilst the person who controls them gains financially. They might be forced to work long hours without breaks, be housed in inadequate accommodation, have little contact with the outside world, or have their wages taken away from them.”

If I’m a service-based SME in the UK, is modern slavery really applicable to me?

“In short, yes. Every business has a supply chain and modern slavery occurs in every country, including the UK.

You need to think about how people could be exploited through your immediate business as well as through your supply chain. There isn’t a clear line defining where exploitation begins and ends, instead it occurs on a continuum. Exploitation accounts for all situations that stray from “decent work”, from labour market infringements and abuse all the way to more severe forms of exploitation. For example, not providing minimum wage, having few or no breaks for your employees, and not allowing unions to form are all examples of labour market infringement. This may not be the case within your company, but what about the businesses you engage with?

Sectors and industries that you probably interact with, and have high risk for labour exploitation in the UK are:

  • Cleaning
  • Warehouses and distribution
  • Hospitality, catering and food services
  • Recycling and waste
  • Manufacturing and electronics
  • Security services

Think about the possible touchpoints with modern slavery: Who cleans your building? Where do you buy technology from? Could the service you provide be used to exploit someone else?”

How much difference can an SME make?

“Like any business, there are changes you can make that can make a positive difference on the lives of your own employees and individuals across your supply chain by changing the way you do business.

When looking at your supply chain, look at where you can make an impact. You won’t have as much influence compared with a larger corporate, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make changes. If you use a supplier and you know other companies that use them too, you can work collectively to push for change. The same principle applies if you work in a shared office space – you can come together with other organisations to think about how you can push for change.

When procuring goods and services be aware of the choice you make and look to work with other businesses with a similar ethos. Always do your due diligence. Look at whether the company publishes a modern slavery statement, do they talk about human rights? The World Benchmarking Alliance have done lots of due diligence on some of the larger corporations, so you can use them to look at who’s performing better than others.

Whilst it might seem like a big and insurmountable problem, changes can include challenging the behaviour of your team. When you’re about to buy the office’s teabags, or chocolate, why don’t you consider buying fairtrade? Fairtrade works towards ensuring that the workers have safe working conditions and fairer pay and may be a better option.” (note: the Fairtrade Foundation are also an ambassador company of Heart of the City)

Those are some great examples of how an SME can make a difference as an individual and collectively. Perhaps an obvious question, but why is it important to prevent modern slavery?

“At the heart of it, everyone deserves not to be exploited and to be in a safe, healthy living and working conditions. There are risks to taking no action and also opportunities in leading the charge in this space.

We’re seeing more and more consumers being interested in buying from brands who don’t engage in modern slavery as well as increasing pressure from large businesses to procure from SMEs who meet minimum standards.  We know that the consumer purchase power is strong, just look at the rise of Tony’s Chocolonely in the UK! It’s amazing. On the flip side, it’s a risk for the business if they don’t prevent modern slavery. In 2015, the UK Government introduced the Modern Slavery Act. Section 54 of this Act, Transparency in Supply Chains, requires all businesses that earn more than £36 million in annual revenue to produce a modern slavery statement that outlines what steps they’ve taken to prevent modern slavery. Although this requirement doesn’t apply to SMEs, if you’re supplying to large businesses or the public sector, you’ll need to demonstrate what actions you’re taking to mitigate the risk of modern slavery.”

Ok, so what next?

“I’d really encourage everyone to look at STOP THE TRAFFIK’s toolkit for SMEs. It has a quick self-assessment section so you can identify where you may be at risk to modern slavery in your upstream and downstream activities. It also has very clear steps on how to mitigate the risk of exploitation, how to spot the signs of exploitation and how to support agency workers. We’ve created it to make sure that it isn’t overwhelming for SMEs, and it has lots of helpful templates and tools for you to think about your upstream and downstream activities.

Also, businesses on Heart of the City’s Foundations for Responsible Business members have access to a workshop we did with the Shiva Foundation, which is on your learning platform.

When you’re ready to investigate modern slavery and your business, assign someone within your business to drive this agenda forward, and make sure there’s buy-in at a senior level. You’ll need someone who is going to be accountable for pushing this work. It tends to be someone in a legal or operational role. The underlying message is that you’ll have to be prepared to change the way you’re doing things, to make a difference.”

Thanks to Louise and STOP THE TRAFFIK for providing some of those insights – you can contact their team for more support. If you’re on our Foundations for Responsible Business programme, you can always speak to your membership manager about modern slavery and available resources.

This was last updated in July 2023 by Heart of the City. We’ve created these resources for individual SMEs to use. None of our content is to be adapted, reused or repurposed for commercial use.