Following the successful prosecution of members of a major modern slavery network, the author considers the scale of the problem and current recommendations to strengthen the law

In the UK, modern slavery “hides in plain sight in our towns and cities, our fields and factories. It reaches into every corner of our lives – in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the services we pay for” (Theresa May, 11 June 2019).

Conservative estimates put the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK at 10,000-13,000; some organisations suggest those numbers could be considerably higher. In 2015, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into force to tackle such practices. In addition to providing the police with greater powers, the Act places some general obligations on supply chain management of corporate organisations where they reach certain financial thresholds.

Police have quashed the UK’s biggest slavery syndicate, which was trafficking and exploiting vulnerable individuals from Poland. Eight members of the gang behind the syndicate were sentenced to imprisonment for a total of 60 years between them following two trials at Birmingham Crown Court this year. Below we look at the case, the effectiveness of the 2015 Act and proposed changes to the legislation.

The biggest case to date

In this recent case, the victims, who in many cases had financial difficulties, were lured to the UK from Poland with the promise of a better life with a well-paid job. However, once they arrived in the UK, they were forced to open bank accounts by the gang, who stole the majority of their wages. The victims were forced into farm work or manual labour for as little as 50p per hour. Working 12 hour days, instead of a wage of around £400 per week victims received substantially less and often only earned £20 per week. They lived in terrible conditions, and were often beaten and threatened with violence by gang members.

Police were able to uncover the financial and identity fraud committed by the individuals in the gang following the intervention of the organisation Hope for Justice, which ran a soup kitchen, noticed the number of Polish nationals who started to use its service, and became concerned. The charity encouraged victims to talk to the police, commencing the downfall of the organised slavery ring. The charity believes over 400 individuals were exploited.

The investigation was extensive, covering 650,000 lines of telephone data, 250 different bank accounts, more than 3,000 pieces of evidence such as bank statements and benefits, and 1,500 witness statements and statements from victims.

While investigating, the police secured 10 interim slavery and trafficking risk orders (STROs) against the defendants. Two breached the conditions and were sentenced for doing so, making them the first to be sentenced to imprisonment under the STROs legislation. STROs will also be imposed on the defendants' release, preventing them from arranging travel or employment for anyone else for nine years.

The value of the complainants' financial exploitation was £380,000; however if the wages and bank accounts of all victims were included, this would amount to over £2 million between June 2012 and October 2017. This highlights the extensive nature of the gang’s criminal activity.

The defendants were condemned as they showed a lack of remorse for their actions and did not recognise the severity of the situation. Detective Chief Inspector Nick Dale, the head of the police’s Gangs & Organised Crime Unit, stated that the defendants were exploiting up to 250 individuals at one time. During the five month trial, 66 brave victims provided statements or gave evidence.

Judge Stacey said the slavery network was the “most ambitious, extensive and prolific” uncovered in the UK, and the “hard truth is that the practice continues, here in the UK, often hiding in plain sight”. This was the UK’s largest modern slavery prosecution and quite possibly the largest of its kind throughout Europe.

The 2015 Act and its review

The Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015: Final Report, following a review chaired by Frank Field MP, was presented to Parliament in May 2019.

The Act was introduced to tackle modern slavery, to clarify the existing slavery and human trafficking offences and increase the penalties for committing these crimes. However, it was clear that there was a need to provide measures which could disrupt supply chain activities and so it introduced measures which corporations are to adopt.

Companies which supply goods and services, and have an annual turnover of more than £36 million, are required to provide an annual modern slavery statement explaining the steps they are taking to ensure that slavery and trafficking are not taking place in any of their supply chains and any part of their business; or, where they are unable to do so, to provide a statement that no such steps have been taken (the “s 54 requirement”).

Some of the jobs the victims undertook in this case were in warehouses, farms and poultry factories that played a role within the supply chains of major supermarkets, highlighting that leading companies can remain unaware of what is happening within their supply chains despite their own modern slavery statement.

The Final Report however was highly critical that the Act lacks teeth, and stated that around 40% of companies are not complying with the Act. It makes 80 recommendations, including:

  • extending the statement of transparency in supply chain to public sector bodies;
  • a requirement for companies to refer to their modern slavery statement in their annual return;
  • removing the ability of corporate bodies to state that they have not implemented modern slavery measures;
  • matters to be set out in the modern slavery statement being no longer optional, so that the six areas to be covered become mandatory (with statutory guidance to be made available on what information organisations are expected to provide in each of the six areas);
  • amending the legislation to require companies to consider the entirety of their supply chains, and where they fail to do so, to explain why not and state what steps they intend to take in the future;
  • requiring businesses to have a named, designated board member who is personally accountable for the production of the modern slavery statement; and
  • businesses' compliance under s 54 of the Act to be monitored by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, with Government taking a graduated approach to strengthen the measures used to tackle non-compliance, such as warnings, fines as a percentage of turnover and director disqualifications. Such measures would be introduced over the next few years and action taken by an enforcement body, which would be self-funded through fines levied.

The Government estimates that thousands of individuals are still in modern slavery within the UK, demonstrating there is a long way for the Act to go in eradicating slavery and trafficking with the UK. The Government is currently reviewing the recommendations of the Final Report.

What is the likely impact for businesses?

Whilst on the face of it the recommendations appear to have the potential to impact further those larger organisations reaching the threshold (for example in carrying out further due diligence), for those not reaching the threshold there could be increasing pressure (and likely monitoring) from their customers through more robust and onerous contractual provisions in supply agreements to demonstrate what actions they are taking.

The Author
Valerie Surgenor is a partner with MacRoberts LLP
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