Business and human rights

Robert Bourns discusses modern slavery and how law firms can advise clients on human rights.

Law Society entrance

The prime minister Theresa May recently announced new measures to combat modern slavery in the country. Mrs May stated that modern slavery is 'the great human rights issue of our time' and expressed her determination to combat it.

Referencing a review of the Modern Slavery Act, she indicated that in its first year 289 modern slavery offences were prosecuted and that there was a 40 per cent rise in the number of victims identified by the State. Although progress was acknowledged by Mrs May, she made clear that much more could be done and should be done and has set up a government-led taskforce on modern slavery to this effect.

The taskforce will hold regular meetings in Downing Street with every relevant department and drive further progress against exploitation by raising awareness, improving training for people working in the criminal justice system, and strengthening support for victims. The prime minister also announced the creation of a £33 million International Modern Slavery Fund, which will focus on high-risk countries where we know victims are regularly trafficked to the UK. She also emphasised the need to tackle the systematic international business model at its source and in transit.

These measures are a step forward and we wholeheartedly welcome them. It is important to note that the creation of the taskforce and the fund are just part of the wider drive to ensure that businesses take responsibility for their human rights impact in their own supply chains. In the past few months significant strides have been made on the issue of business and human rights. For instance:

In May the Foreign Office updated the UK National Action Plan Good Business: implementing the UN Guiding Principles, which implements the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The purpose of this plan is not just to help companies understand and manage their human rights impact but also to send a strong message from the government to companies on its expectations of business behaviour, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. The updated version adds new measures that extend to procurement, free trade agreements and strengthens the provision of effective remedy for victims.

In June the High Court issued a landmark civil litigation ruling against a company in relation to modern slavery issues. Last year, a group of six men brought legal action against DJ Houghton Chicken Catching Services, based in the South East of England. These men alleged that in 2012 they were trafficked from Lithuania to the UK where they had to work on farms as chicken catchers in inhumane and degrading conditions. An investigation showed that the men were working in supply chains producing free range eggs for McDonald's, Tesco, Asda and M&S. The men were taken into the care of the national referral mechanism for victims of human trafficking, but no criminal charges were brought. A civil claim was filed and the case was heard in the High Court earlier this year where Mr Justice Supperstone ruled that the men were owed compensation for the company's failure to pay statutory minimum wages, charging prohibited job-finders fees, failure to provide adequate facilities to wash, rest, eat and drink and for unlawfully deducting workers' pay. This case is a significant landmark as it is the first time a Court has awarded damages against a British company in relation to modern slavery issues. It also sends a strong message to businesses that the courts can and will enforce these new rules.

In July the Joint Human Rights Committee in Parliament held its first oral evidence session on the inquiry into business and human rights with representatives from Amnesty International and the Institute for Human Rights and Business. The Committee is focusing on the need for effective remedy and compliance. Other political mechanisms have been used in the past few months to hold large companies to account for potential violations of human rights in the course of business.

The solicitors' profession plays an important role in driving this agenda forward. Law societies across the world are instrumental in ensuring that law firms, solicitors and lawyers assess their own impact and effectively advise and educate clients about human rights in their supply chains and operations. For example, by having strict procurement rules which allow for the exclusion of a tender where there is information showing misconduct by a company, making sure any agency staff are treated fairly and paid properly and, importantly, ensuring that there is a clear culture in firms to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

As part of our work in the public interest, the Law Society has actively campaigned on this issue for a number of years at home and internationally. It recognises the significance of this issue to the standing of this jurisdiction world wide. We look forward to continuing to play our part, working together with the new government on our common aim to ensure that modern slavery is eradicated.