In-house lawyers – a first line of defence against modern slavery

Olivier Roth, domestic human rights & constitutional law policy advisor at the Law Society, talks about the role in-house solicitors can play in combatting modern slavery.

The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.

William Faulkner said these words, but it is another William who would recognise the pertinence of this quote.

Wilberforce may have been successful in outlawing slavery in the UK in the 19th century, but it is still here with us in the 21st. A quick look at the statistics reminds us of the scale of modern slavery today. The government estimates that there are currently around 13,000 people in modern day slavery in the UK. Forced labour is the most common purpose of trafficking in industries such as agriculture, construction and hospitality. A significant proportion of trafficked people, the vast majority of whom are women and girls, are used for sexual exploitation.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 45 million people trapped in modern slavery. The recent case of the Sports Direct warehouse workers, trafficked from Poland and working for free, highlights the international nature of modern slavery.

Solicitors working in-house for large commercial organisations should be well-versed in the requirements imposed by section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act: to draft an annual slavery and human trafficking statement, signed by a director and published on the website. While this formal requirement may sound straightforward, the processes behind producing such a statement might not always be so.

Anyone with a role to play in fighting modern slavery should follow the intent of the law, as well as the letter. This requires commercial organisations – and therefore in-house solicitors – to take the modern slavery requirements as a starting point, rather than as the end product. The Law Society has produced a practice note designed to help in-house solicitors understand how they can use a modern slavery statement to help make important organisational changes. The aim should be not just to ensure immediate compliance with the law, but drive continuous improvements in an organisation’s modern slavery strategy.

This can affect all levels of the organisation: from procurement practices to staff training, and developing KPIs linked to the eradication of modern slavery. The role of in-house solicitors in supporting these changes will be valuable. A lead from the organisation’s solicitor can help secure buy-in from all levels of the organisation, as well as the various contractors in the supply chain.

Modern slavery will not, of course, be eradicated by the end of the financial year, no matter how effective an in-house solicitor. This is a long-term challenge, requiring year-on-year improvements, refining processes, and creating a clear modern slavery framework to which all levels of an organisation subscribe.

The fact that, of the 3,266 potential victims of trafficking identified in 2015, 982 of these were children, demonstrates the urgency of the fight against modern slavery. In the UK in 2015, 3,266 people were identified as potential victims of trafficking. This is a 40 per cent increase on 2014 figures.

The Law Society will support in-house solicitors, and all those involved in business and human rights, to identify and eliminate modern slavery. The Society is organising a networking event on 30 March , in partnership with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and Ergon Associates, to strengthen these links.

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