21st October Journal Column

CENE By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

It’s been 12 months since the Modern Slavery Act 2015 came into effect. The Act states an offence is committed if someone holds another person in slavery or servitude or requires them to perform forced or compulsory labour. It applies to every organisation, regardless of size.
The legislation increased the maximum jail term for people traffickers from 14 years to life, and gave courts in England and Wales powers to impose orders to restrict the activities of suspected traffickers.

Businesses, especially those in our industry, need to be aware of what the Modern Slavery Act entails and ensure they comply with it. For those that don’t, they have more to worry about than just criminal prosecution and fines, (which alone are bad enough) – their own, and their clients’, reputation and brand is also massively at risk.

Over the years the government has refocused its attention on tackling modern slavery. Theresa May has shown her commitment to tackling the issue and pledged over £33 million to create a five-year International Modern Slavery Fund to help high-risk countries. The government may also be tempted to ‘name and shame’ key businesses which drag their heels. The Prime Minister has made it very clear she isn’t afraid of name-checking companies that aren’t doing as they should, she proved this by calling out major infrastructure projects and companies in her speech at the Conservative Party Conference last week, so it’s vital that businesses know what is expected of them.

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) released a toolkit back in July for construction companies that looks at the causes of modern slavery and areas of good practice. It also released a series of reports on the state of labour exploitation in supply chains and collaborated with the multi-stakeholder initiative Stronger Together to develop advice and guidance for its membership. It’s good to see companies and organisations actually taking action against slavery, and helping organisations move further away from it. With regards to awareness, we’re in a much better position than we were last year.

The first year of the Act has been more of an awareness campaign, and that’s definitely what was needed. In a recent survey by the Supply Chain School that surveyed 14,000 construction industry members, it was found that 75 per cent of respondents said they knew what the Act covered and how it affected their organisation. But more than half (51 per cent) of those surveyed stated they either did not know, or were unsure what actual steps to take.

House builder Barratt Developments has taken a step in the right direction, announcing on Anti-Slavery Day earlier this week that it has completely reviewed its supply chain and has set up a dedicated whistle-blower hotline to combat modern slavery. Now that everyone is aware of what is required of them, there’s no more time for excuses and there is now an urgent need for more companies to step up and turn their awareness into actions.