Modern Slavery Statements in agriculture sector are poor quality

Monday, 14 October 2019

A study published today by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, in partnership with the office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, shows that companies in the agriculture sector are failing to produce Modern Slavery Statements that demonstrate what they are doing to end labour exploitation in their workforce.

The report reached its conclusion by analysing the Modern Slavery Statements of agricultural companies.These statements are meant to outline what steps a company is taking to ensure modern slavery is eradicated from its business and supply chains. Any business operating in the UK with a turnover of £36       million or more is legally required to publish and update this document annually.

The key findings of the report are:

  • Poor statements showed a tick box approach, providing only generic comments about zero tolerance to modern slavery with no indication of the actions taken to address the issue
  • Only 46% of these statements were compliant with the requirements of the law
  • Over 60% of statements lacked any mention of the effectiveness of the steps taken to address slavery, despite government guidance advising this happen
  • 69% of companies said little or nothing about their use of risk appraisal, nor identified areas of high-risk
  • The quality of content of statements has declined year-on-year. The score started out low in the first year of reporting, an average of 13 out of 30. This declined in 2018 and has declined further in 2019
  • Official guidance says that websites should include all Modern Slavery Statements, not just the current year, so that the public can compare statements and monitor progress within an organisation over time. Only two companies in the agricultural sector now do this, although this is up from none in 2018

Andrew Phillips, lead author of the report, said: “Overall these findings are of concern as they show a lack of transparency and commitment to ending modern slavery. These statements are vital in giving consumers an opportunity to check what companies are doing, if anything, to make our food production slavery-free. People working in this sector are more vulnerable than those in other industries. They work some of the longest hours, have no job security because they are easily replaced, and there is a reliance on low-skilled seasonal labour. If you combine this with pressure from food retailers to keep prices low for their customers, you create the conditions in which exploitation can occur.”

The report makes a number of recommendations, including the introduction of legal action against companies that do not fully comply with the requirements of the statement. The authors recommend, in line with the recent Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act, a gradual approach that starts with initial warnings, fines (as a percentage of turnover) and escalating to court summons and directors’ disqualifications.

Dr Alex Trautrims, co-author and an Associate Director at The Rights Lab, who leads its Business and Economies Programme, said: “A Modern Slavery Statement is vital in driving action and can be the catalyst for change. We have seen how successful enforcement can be with the Gender Pay Gap where there was a compliance rate of 87% by the first deadline for reporting, compared to 19% within the agricultural sector more than one year after the modern slavery legislation came into force. Our research demonstrates the need for the government to consider penalising companies who fail to write and publish a comprehensive statement that covers not only risk within their businesses and supply chains but what is being done by the board members to stop it.”

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) reports that most of the intelligence it receives about labour exploitation relates to the agriculture sector. GLAA Director of Operations Ian Waterfield said: “The GLAA operates a licensing regime in the agricultural sector to ensure businesses meet the employment standards required by law. Regulation plays a key role in protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation in the sectors where it is in place. However, businesses themselves also need to act responsibly by producing statements which demonstrate a clear awareness and engagement with the problem of modern slavery and labour exploitation. We will always work with businesses who are or want to be compliant to help them drive up standards and better protect workers.”

Today's research updates a similar report released by the Rights Lab and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner last year, which found poor reporting and low levels of action by the UK agricultural sector on modern slavery.  

Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said: “This report reveals that only 46% of modern slavery statements by companies in the agricultural sector complied with the Modern Slavery Act as of June 2019. Worse, the research shows that the quality of statements has declined year-on-year. This is simply not good enough. Companies within scope of our modern slavery legislation must produce an annual modern slavery statement, but this research reveals that even when this happens, many still opt for a tick box approach which demonstrates a lack of determination to take proactive measures to ensure that there are no slaves in their own organisation or supply chains. Recent cases show the devastating impact that slavery in agricultural supply chains can have. In July, eight offenders were convicted of exploiting up to 400 victims in the biggest case of modern slavery in the UK to date. Victims were forced to live in squalor and work long days in farms and factories, working for a pittance and picking produce – which was then sold in all the top British supermarkets. All businesses have a responsibility to play, particularly those in high-risk sectors such as agriculture – where a high turnover of workers or low-skilled work can attract vulnerable workers, often migrants. These workers must be protected by a robust business and consumer response to tackling modern slavery.”

The new 2019 report is available here


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