Kevin Hyland OBE was the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC), a role created as one of the key provisions of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2015. In this capacity, Hyland led efforts to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, promoting best practice and driving crucial improvement across the anti-slavery response, both in the UK and internationally. In May 2018, Hyland resigned after four years as IASC to take up a position at ChildFund Ireland. This interview took place in April 2018.
Could you explain what the role of the IASC is in the UK and how it aligns with the government’s strategy to combat human trafficking and, more specifically, labour exploitation?
My role was established under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to spearhead the UK’s fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. My aim is to increase the number of victims identified and supported, to increase the number of prosecutions and convictions of those perpetrating this crime, and to ensure that prevention is at the core of responses domestically and internationally. Modern slavery is highly complex, and therefore I have five priority areas to help achieve these aims. These are victim support, partnership working, international cooperation, engaging the private sector and criminal justice response. My priorities align with the UK government’s own modern-slavery strategy and my office liaises with their teams on a regular basis. However, my role is independent of government, and therefore I seek to ensure that the government is implementing its strategy in the most robust and effective manner.
With its reporting requirement for large companies, the MSA has initiated an open discussion within the business community. What is the role of the IASC office in supporting the business community, and what does an engagement with business leaders look like in practice?
The private sector must take meaningful action if we are to tackle modern slavery. Of the 40 million people estimated to be in slavery worldwide, around 16 million are believed to be working in the private sector. This is why business is one of my five priority areas. My office works with companies in a number of ways. This includes one-on-one meetings with large corporations to encourage and advise on action. We also work with trade bodies and other business forums to raise awareness of the issue and encourage whole sectors towards better practices. Additionally, we are working with investors to support them in engaging with listed companies on this issue.
Is there a complementary requirement for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)? Does the IASC work with SMEs or have plans to do so? If so, what are the targeted aims?
There is not a disclosure requirement for SMEs, but the logic of section 54 applying to large companies is that these have SMEs in their supply chain, and therefore anti-slavery action will be cascaded down through the private sector. Some SMEs are not within supply chains – for example, small individual businesses on the high street, which only serve consumers. For these, different approaches are needed, such as licensing and proactive labour inspection. Our approaches differ depending on the business type.
What are the key challenges you have encountered and/or observed that the business community is experiencing in addressing the risk of human trafficking in international supply chains? What would be needed to overcome these challenges?
One key challenge is simply the will to take meaningful action. There are lots of policies being created and statements being published, but this is not the same as proper action on the ground. Businesses need to recognize that the time when they could consider themselves only liable for the actions within their direct operations has passed.
Of course, some companies are doing really good work. Often, challenges for them relate to the lack of statutory labour protections in place alongside very complex and informal labour provision arrangements, making visibility of who is actually working within a supply chain, and under what conditions, very difficult to ascertain.
Additionally, some governments may not recognize slavery as an issue and may have highly problematic visa systems in place, such as tied visas, which prevent a worker from changing employer.
Businesses need to take a root-cause approach in international supply chains. This means things like supporting the eradication of recruitment fees, lobbying other governments to improve labour protections and inspection regimes, and supporting the development of trade unions within their supply chains. They also need to be realistic and behave accordingly: no business can understand the context, language and issues of every country and region in which it has a supply-chain presence. As such, it’s very important to work with expert organizations in these countries that can provide appropriate intelligence and advice.
Have you noticed an increase in concern regarding human trafficking and labour abuse in the UK business community? If so, what developments do you believe have triggered this?
There is definitely greater awareness of the issues and how they may affect UK businesses. It is often a surprise to companies that there could be forced labour within their UK business alongside international outposts. Once they understand this, we see them start to take action. The Modern Slavery Act is obviously what has spurred this awakening, alongside high levels of media coverage and a considerable number of organizations producing toolkits and guidance. However, there are still too many companies not engaging, and this needs to change.
Which are the industry sectors most at risk in the UK? How has the IASC worked with them?
The sectors most at risk are those with higher levels of migrant, lower-skilled and temporary labour. This includes domestic work, agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing and other work, such as in warehouses. We work, to varying degrees, with most high-risk sectors. As regards the fishing industry, we have supported the Responsible Fishing Scheme Standard, which aims to embed worker welfare into fishing. We continue to advise them for future iterations of the standard. We have also worked with the Chartered Institute of Building to advise on, and support guidance for, the construction sector. Similarly, we have advised on the development of anti-slavery toolkits in the hotel industry. Procurement is a vital lever for addressing this issue, and so we have been working with the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply to ensure procurement professionals understand how to look at contracts for signs of potential abuse. Domestic work is a different situation, due to its private-household location. We are working with the UK government to shore up protections and access to rights for these workers. Additionally, we have been applying pressure to the UK’s largest companies, the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250, to improve their compliance with section 54 of the act. These companies have operations or supply chains that involve high-risk sectors, such as manufacturing, and so we also reach them via this route.
Overall, a culture change is needed in business, moving away from viewing people as commodities and towards respecting labour rights and legal responsibilities. Businesses need to understand that business models that require labour to be brought in at short notice, and for too low costs, are going to create potential trafficking and slavery risks. And they need to recognize that being a ‘good’ company on this issue is not about saying that they do not have forced labour in supply chains, but about having proper processes in place to find issues and remediate them appropriately. The best businesses are already doing this, but many more need to follow.
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