Eradicating modern slavery: the importance of whistleblowing procedures

21st November 2016

A landmark high court judgment has found a British company liable for modern slavery for its treatment of migrant workers. Six Lithuanian men who were trafficked to the UK claimed compensation for being severely exploited by the Kent-based gangmaster firm that employed them, DJ Houghton Chicken Catching Services.

The men described inhumane and degrading working conditions, saying they were denied breaks, their wages were withheld and included claims that their supervisors repeatedly abused, assaulted and intimidated them with fighting dogs. The men were working in supply chains producing free-range eggs to major retailers including Tesco, Asda, M&S and Sainsbury’s. While the compensation has not yet been assessed, it is expected to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. A personal injury claim is still to be heard and another ten men are also taking a claim.

Modern slavery is a global problem that transcends age, gender and ethnicities. It encompasses all forms of contemporary slavery: human trafficking, slavery, forced and bonded labour and the worst forms of child labour. Around the world it affects an estimated 29.8 million people, including here in the UK. In 2015 the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) was passed creating new obligations for UK businesses with an annual turnover of £36 million or above. Section 54 of the MSA requires the relevant businesses to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement and publish it in a prominent place on their websites. The MSA provides that the statement may include information about “its policies in relation to slavery and human trafficking”; “the parts of its business and supply chains where there is a risk of slavery and human trafficking taking place, and the steps it has taken to assess and manage that risk”; and “the training about slavery and human trafficking available to its staff.”

Industries particularly at risk include those relying on low skilled or unskilled workers, with high numbers of temporary, seasonal or agency workers often doing physically demanding or dangerous work. It is therefore important for organisations to review the policies and procedures they have in place for reporting concerns about modern day slavery. As workers are the eyes and ears of organisations, they will most often be the first ones to see when wrongdoing or malpractice is taking place. In this regard, whistleblowing procedures can be a vital failsafe to ensure that modern slavery is not being practiced within the organisation or throughout the supply chain.

But how does any business ensure that reporting modern slavery (and wrongdoing more broadly) is taken seriously in third party organisations? Here lies a conundrum. The obvious answer would be to require third party suppliers to refer their staff to an overarching whistleblowing policy, but what does this mean in practice? Can the assurances provided to an organisations own staff be applied to staff in an external company? What sort of protection can the supplier’s staff expect if they disclose information about wrongdoing to another organisation?

The reality is more complex than might at first appear to be the case as by encouraging workers to disclose information outside the company, that worker’s employment may well be at risk. One solution would be to ensure that procurement procedures insist that whistleblowing or speak up policies meet best practice and that the contracting organisation includes external options for reporting concerns, particularly throughout the supply chain. In this way the external disclosure is endorsed by the employer and in effect is treated in the same way as an internal disclosure to the employer, which in legal terms provides better protection for the worker. Obviously, businesses should also ensure that their whistleblowing policy mentions modern slavery as the type of issue that should be reported through this channel. The policy should be easily accessible and communicated to staff.

Of course whistleblowing is just one facet in combating slavery. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establishes the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and businesses must avoid infringing rights and address adverse human rights abuses caused by them. From due diligence to unannounced inspection and regular audits, there is much work to be done to protect vulnerable workers. Enlightened organisations see whistleblowing as a vital part of corporate governance and social responsibility, and many large organisations have signed up to our First 100 campaign (e.g. Diageo, Network Rail and Royal Bank of Scotland to name a few) and tested our Code of Practice. For more information about how PCaW can help organisations to embed best practice whistleblowing, please see here.