UK falling short in addressing modern slavery through international trade and investment

Tuesday, 21 May 2024

New reports highlight the need for further efforts to address modern slavery in UK trade and investment to fulfil the UK’s repeated commitment to act as a ‘force for good’.

The study, conducted by the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Anti-Slavery International, highlighted that efforts to address modern slavery practices in UK trade and investment have evolved, but continue to fall behind international best practice.

The UK Government has identified the Indo-Pacific as a priority for trade and investment, declaring that by 2030 the UK will be deeply engaged in the region. The Government has also called for businesses to ensure their supply-chains are free of forced labour.

This is particularly important in the Asia-Pacific region, which has the highest incidence of modern slavery in the world, accounting for 59% of the global estimate. The relationship between trade and investment, and the risk of modern slavery, has become increasingly clear in recent years but remains complex. The research stressed that the impact of trade relations on forced labour depends on the types of products being traded and the characteristics of trade partners.

Trade openness – the extent at which a country is involved in global trading - can help to reduce forced labour and strengthen protection against it, when involving partners with high levels of labour protection. On the other hand, trade in primary goods and products intensive in unskilled labour can increase forced labour, where labour protections are not enforced. This means that getting the terms of trade right is crucial to protect against forced labour.

The researchers’ analysis of individual case study countries of China, India, Malaysia, and Thailand also revealed that there were high levels of differentiation between states’ commitment to human and labour rights and demonstrated the importance of tailored approaches for different contexts. However, this should be underpinned by a strong commitment to general standards.

The study also highlighted issues with new trade and investment agreements being forged between the UK and Indo-Pacific countries, and a lack of deep and comprehensive engagement with issues related to modern slavery. The research showed that UK agreements are falling short of international best practice and do not reflect a coherent strategy. If the UK is to be a ‘force for good’ in its international relations and prevent goods produced using forced labour from entering the UK, greater attention is needed to tackling modern slavery in trade and investment agreements.

Professor Todd Landman, Research Director at the Rights Lab, said of the new report: “This project brought together researchers, policy makers, and members of civil society to reveal what appears to be a paucity of provisions in free trade agreements and bi-lateral investment treaties to address forced labour."

Todd Landman
The UK professed goal to play a key role in being a force for good in combatting modern slavery in supply chains will need to be met with a more explicit focus across its trade and investment portfolio.
Professor Todd Landman

Professor Dame Sara Thornton, Professor of Practice in Modern Slavery Policy at Nottingham Rights Lab, said: “Modern slavery in global supply chains is not an exceptional occurrence but is all pervasive. We therefore need to exploit a wide range of policy tools in order to end the exploitation."

“Trade and investment agreements are potentially valuable tools, but this research has illustrated a lack of a coherent strategy and approach. There is much more that can be done to reflect modern slavery concerns in both negotiations and agreements.”
Professor Dame Sara Thornton

The policy report made a series of recommendations for the UK Government to improve and alleviate modern slavery concerns through trade and investment.

These include ensuring these concerns are included in trade and investment negotiations, adopting regular sustainability assessments, and developing a coherent foreign policy to advance modern slavery protections in third states.

Jakub Sobik, Communications Director at the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, which funded the study, said: “Trade and investment play an increasing role in managing risks of modern slavery. This report provides evidence and guidance on how to harness trade and investment more coherently.

The UK Government should develop a systematic approach to integrating forced labour provisions into its trade and investment agreements, embedding them in a broader trade strategy.
Jakub Sobic

The research was funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, which in turn is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. To read the report in full, please click here.

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