Understanding modern slavery prevention as human rights due diligence

Since the Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015 there has been greater national awareness of modern slavery and human trafficking. This is particularly evident in the business community, mainly because Section 54 of the Act requires large companies to report on how they are tackling modern slavery. STOP THE TRAFFIK has worked with businesses leading in corporate social responsibility who have embraced the challenge presented by the Act. These pioneers are mitigating their risk of exposure to modern slavery in their operations and supply chains through awareness training, ethically auditing, reviewing internal policies, and introducing reporting procedures.

The problem of compartmentalising

Although greater awareness of the issue is vital, it is worrying that many businesses consider the issue of modern slavery separately to human rights due diligence. STOP THE TRAFFIK has observed a theoretical disconnect between human rights and modern slavery both in external reports and the behaviour of business personnel. In external reporting, Modern Slavery Statements rarely reference internal human rights policies and fail to mention effective human rights due diligence already implemented by the company. Team members commonly refer to modern slavery prevention as isolated from human rights due diligence, seeing it as ‘yet another ethical requirement’ which they must follow.

Such compartmentalising misunderstands modern slavery, undermining subsequent mitigation by addressing the topic as a standalone issue. Victims will often face a multitude of human rights violations so to effectively provide redress modern slavery must be understood as one element of the wider rights framework. Additionally, tackling human rights and modern slavery separately creates unnecessary work for businesses. By implementing a joined-up response that nests modern slavery prevention within human rights due diligence, companies avoid having to do the same work twice. This is crucial as companies can quickly experience fatigue if they are required to respect multiple standards and frameworks which crowd out each other.

Modern Slavery as a rights violation

Human rights are a universally agreed moral framework which establishes a minimum standard of life which no one should be allowed to fall below. Rights affect all elements of our lives, from allowing us to express our beliefs, to ensuring we receive basic healthcare; from prohibiting torture, to guaranteeing education for our children. These rights are interdependent, meaning that we often rely on one to ensure another. Due to this, when violations occur they commonly impact multiple rights at the same time.

Modern slavery is intrinsically a human rights issue which is primarily enshrined in the prohibition of slavery and the right to freedom of movement. However, victims of modern slavery also experience various other rights violations. Victims of child labour could be denied their right to education; adults experiencing labour exploitation which are often kept in overcrowded and inadequate housing might be denied their right to privacy; whilst victims of sexual exploitation could be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment.

The way forward

To avoid the problem of compartmentalising, companies need to understand that modern slavery is a human rights issue and treat it as one in their mitigation and reporting. Modern Slavery Statements should be written in partnership with human rights reporting and should explicitly communicate the intrinsic link between them. Prevention and mitigation of modern slavery should be adopted into human rights due diligence programmes to ensure an effective and holistic approach is used. Modern Slavery Statements naturally fit the human rights due diligence outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as both require businesses to identify, prevent, and mitigate the risk of incidents. Nesting modern slavery prevention within human right due diligence will ensure that companies follow their three-tiered responsibility to respect, protect, and realise rights.

Companies cannot be blamed for compartmentalising modern slavery as Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act fails to highlight the intrinsic link to human rights. In light of this shortcoming, STOP THE TRAFFIK recently recommended to the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act that the government emphasises this inherent relationship in their rewording of Section 54.

Ultimately the end game for corporate social responsibility should be respecting and realising human rights, and modern slavery prevention is an important step towards that goal.

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