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Today is Anti-Slavery Day and a chance for everyone to reflect on the progress that’s been made in the two years since the UK introduced its world leading Modern Slavery Act. Since it was introduced, just over 3,000 businesses have released a Modern Slavery Statement out of the estimated 9,000 to 11,000 companies that should have released one. This isn’t good enough. Modern Slavery is heinous crime and far more prevalent than we think, even in a developed country. 

No business should want to profit from slavery. The number of people reported as potential victims of slavery and human trafficking in the UK has more than doubled in the past three years. The latest consolidated estimate is that in 2017 there are 40.3 million people around the world are held in some form of slavery. This is shocking, 184 years after William Wilberforce’s courageous campaign to abolish the Slavery Act. 

Organisations such as the Snowdrop project, Unseen, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and Anti- Slavery International have increasingly put a human face to this issue and that is haunting. No nationality, no level of education is immune to being tricked, abused and indebted. Slavery is not just about individuals who through the direct threat of violence can’t speak out to raise the alarm. But also about those who fear for their family back at home; or have a belief no one will believe them; lack the awareness to what they are entitled to; or, perhaps worst of all, through pride and shame believe that this abuse is somehow their fault. And just think, sometimes the situation victims of modern slavery find themselves in is, they believe, better than their horrors of their previous life.

M&S has been recognised by a number of organisations for the progress we have made in tackling modern slavery. We topped the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark for Food and Fashion (coming second overall) and only yesterday were recognised by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre as the top FTSE100 company for taking meaningful action on slavery. We’re pleased to be recognised for our efforts, but we have much more to do. 

M&S with our supply chain and partners have focussed on helping co-workers to better spot the hidden signs of modern slavery through conferences, workshops, stronger together training, working closer with enforcement agencies and by sponsoring the national Modern Slavery Hotline (which has received 2,500 calls in the last 12 months and made over 1,000 modern slavery referrals to the police and safeguarding teams across the UK). There is no business or extended supply chain that is without the potential risk of modern slavery. A recent Ethical Trading Initiative study found that now 71 per cent of companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring in their supply chains and recently the UK was upgraded to having a medium risk of modern slavery. 

In 2016/17, ethical audits in our supply chain identified 12 non-compliances under the heading ‘employment is freely chosen’, this included the use of recruitment fees, deposits for protective equipment, mandatory overtime, and restricted toilet breaks. With thousands of suppliers all over the world, this is a small number, but it is still 12 too many. In all instances, we have verified evidence of suppliers putting corrective actions in place. 

We also recognise the limitation of mainstream ethical audits to identify Modern Slavery issues. Our focus is on responsible recruitment and better detection. No one should pay for a job in our supply chain or in any other supply chain as starting work indebted makes workers much more vulnerable to abuse. We expect our own business units, business partners and extended supply chain to:

Have an effective toolkit to ensure tight management of 3rd party labour; 
Undertake effective risk assessments of their suppliers;
Be meeting the reporting requirements of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act or equivalent legislation in other countries of operation; 
Be Investing in training and awareness raising so that many eyes in and around the workforce are vigilant and reporting slavery concerns. 

Where the risk assessment indicates operating in a country and sector of high risk, in addition to using experts to assist with due diligence, our strong advice is to join an appropriate collaborative group as this issue is too big for one organisation to address alone. Collaboration on modern slavery has increased dramatically over the last 24 months. What is particularly exciting is the scaling of initiatives like Clearview and IRIS to help business identify responsible labour providers and the momentum provided by CEOs getting behind the Consumer Goods Forum’s Forced Labour Principles.  
 
M&S’ latest Modern Slavery Statement and the greater detail in our Human Rights Report is about sharing the work we have done over the last year so that other businesses can make faster traction and to avoid siloed learning. We made our Modern Slavery Toolkit, which provides step-by-step support for implementing modern slavery approach for our suppliers and partners, open source to encourage more businesses to get started. Our interactive supply chain map now indicates the presence of a trade union and/or a workers committee in a factory because we know that freedom of association and effective workplace dialogue are key enablers to workers realising their rights and effectively communicating concerns. In addition to sponsoring the UK Modern Slavery Hotline and through other collaborations like project Issara, we are strengthening our existing grievance mechanisms and encouraging our supply chain and their labour providers to do so too.  

There is no place for modern slavery in any business. We take the issue seriously and there are many others that are doing great work to prevent this heinous crime. We recognise that we need to do more, but it is not just M&S and other large companies that need to act, every single company needs to address the threat of modern slavery, and do so quickly.