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Businesses need a clear head to tackle modern slavery

Kate Garbers, Managing Director at Unseen

28 March 2017

Kate Garbers, Managing Director at Unseen – a charity working towards a world without slavery, highlights the importance of transparency for businesses seeking to do something about modern slavery, particularly in industries with complex supply chains…


1. Given its scale, why is slavery still essentially invisible?

I am not sure it is invisible; I think we don’t always know how to recognise it and sometimes we choose not to see it.

In the west, we have an insatiable desire for cheap goods and services. We rarely think about how our clothes, food and technology can be so cheap and the fact is we often don’t know who made the things we buy, even reputable brands struggle to know where all their materials come from.

It is not a pleasant thing to think about, but we need to understand that our choices impact the lives of other people, others who are vulnerable and who have less choice and opportunity than we do and traffickers exploit this. They commodify people to make money. We also need to appreciate that slavery happens closer to home in our local communities; victims have been found in take-aways, nail bars, brothels, car washes and the food and agricultural industries, producing goods we purchase and offering services we buy. Once we know about slavery,we have the opportunity to make the choice about where and how we spend our money and what we deem acceptable conditions for other humans to be forced to work in.

2. What does Unseen do to help?

Unseen’s mission is to work towards a world without slavery. We work in three main ways:

  1. Equipping: We deliver training to frontline professionals, such as the police and health workers, so they have the confidence and knowledge to identify victims. We train around 1,000 staff annually and create tailored action plans for them so that there is a coordinated response within and between organisations.
  1. Supporting: In June 2011, Unseen opened its first safe-house in the Bristol area for women survivors of human trafficking. As the only safe-house in the South West for women and one of only two in the country offering 24-hour support, it is vital to ensuring women survivors begin to recover from their ordeal. Then in 2016, we opened our new men’s safe-house, also in the South West.We specialise in helping the most vulnerable survivors with complex needs. We offer access to medical care, legal support, counselling, therapeutic activities and emotional support. In-house courses include maths, English and computing, plus sessions on safe relationships and confidence-building. We also encourage men and women to take up training, education and volunteering in the community. To date, we’ve supported over 250 men and women from 37 different countries. When it’s time for survivors to move on, our dedicated Resettlement and Outreach service (RIO) supports survivors to reintegrate back into society and continue their recovery. Unseen’s Resettlement Service and safe-houses have been hailed as models of best practice by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice. Our next project is a dedicated provision for child victims of trafficking, for whom there is currently no specialist service. With 982 children under the age of 18 having been found in the UK in 2015 alone, there is a vital and urgent need for this service. At the end of last year, Unseen also launched a new national Modern Slavery Helpline. Aimed at providing advice and support to potential victims, members of the public, businesses and frontline professionals.
  1. Influencing: We believe the only way to tackle slavery is collaborative working. We help shape policy by working with local authorities, government agencies, NGOs, businesses and individuals to share information and create joined-up responses to trafficking, not only in the UK but also worldwide.Locally, we work closely with Avon and Somerset Police (supporting officers to plan and execute operations to raid massage parlours, nail-bars and cannabis factories), plus Bristol City Council, legal and judiciary representatives and local authorities. Unseen is the driving force behind a regional Anti-Slavery Partnership (ASP) in the South West, bringing together all five police forces in the region to tackle adult and child trafficking. We are now looking to replicate this model across the country.Nationally we work with The Salvation Army, Home Office Visa and Immigration Services, UK Human Trafficking Centre, and the National Crime Agency. Unseen also sits on the EU Civil Society Platform, which enables us to help shape local, national and EU policy at the highest level.

 3. What are your thoughts on the modern slavery act, two years on? 

Unseen feels that the Modern Slavery Act has had a significant impact in terms of outlining and defining the political imperative and intention behind tackling this crime. We have seen this imperative filter down into law enforcement and statutory agencies, prompting a great understanding of the crime, how it presents and their duties in relation to this. There appears to be the beginnings of a greater understanding of the issue and more people, from a range of sectors, discussing it.

This being said there is, of course, more to do. We have to appreciate that the Act is still relatively new and this means it will take time for us to see the true benefits of all of its parts, for example; prosecutions and convictions under the Act will take their time to work through the courts and Section 54 – Transparency in Supply Chains clause encourages businesses, in a non-prescriptive manner to look into their supply chains and report against their findings, will take time for us as consumers to see the real impact of.

The Act is lacking in terms of clarity regarding the provision of victim protection. The decision was made to run NRM pilots and use the results of these to develop an effective system. The pilots have finished and we await evaluation from the Home Office. Alongside the pilots we have been working with the Modern Slavery Unit at the Home Office to compile Statutory Guidance for the Delivery of Victim Support, but again this is dependent on the findings of the NRM evaluation. Further work has been done by the NGO sector and recommendations for survivor support and reintegration have been produced. There is no doubt that victim support is a tricky element to get right but we would like to see more forward momentum with this.


4. How do you work with businesses? What impact have you seen? Would you like to name any real leaders in this field?

Unseen works closely with business to help them work through what transparency means for them in their sector.  Businesses are now openly discussing this issue and are starting to make inroads into what is often a difficult and complex area, particularly with complex global supply chains. Many are trying to take the lead – Unilever is a leader, Primark and Tesco have both taken a lot of action, despite public perceptions, as has M&S.


5. What role do businesses play in confronting and stopping modern slavery? 

Business has to play a key role.  Unseen believes that the business sector has the smarts, power, and influence to make a real change.  The Act requires the Board room, for the first time, to sign a statement, making it the boardrooms responsibility rather than a CSR or HR Manager’s responsibility to ensure there is no modern slavery across their supply chains and their business.


6. What are the barriers to action, especially for businesses? 

One of the main barriers we see is the sheer complexity of the landscape. It is fair to say that Modern Slavery is a new phenomenon to many businesses and we find that there is a genuine lack of understanding as to how modern slavery can infiltrate legitimate businesses and supply chains. In order to understand how to tackle slavery businesses first have to be made aware of the fact that it is even an issue within their supply chains and business models.


7. What can businesses do as a first step? 

As a first step businesses need to understand their organisation and supply chains so that they can start to effectively identify, manage and mitigate risks.  Unless they understand theirorganisation and where the risks are they won’t be able to apply due diligence processes required. One way businesses can start this process is by registering with TISC Report, the world’s largest open data registry, committed to ending Modern Slavery, by joining up Transparency In Supply Chains (TISC) reporting globally. 


8. How does a business become a best practice example of fighting modern slavery?

By being transparent, recognising that there are always risks and by being honest.  The best businesses will have policies and practices in place to help mitigate the risks and will know what to do if they spot the signs of modern slavery or forced labour and Unseen are always willing to help by offering businesses assistance to achieve this. Sector collaboration is also key, setting the standards for different sectors and helping those in sectors to share their learning and their struggles will be really important if businesses want to achieve best practice.


9. Unseen mentions influencing as one of its core areas of focus. What role do you believe communication has in stopping modern slavery? Both in terms of talking to employees, supply-chains and spreading the message wider afield?

Communication is key.  Raising awareness will ensure that employees, employers and the general public understand how slavery presents and its impact. We also need to ensure that all parts of society are in a position to spot the signs and know what to do if they think they have seen an instance of modern slavery.

Unseen runs the Modern Slavery Helpline and this allows business, employees and the public to report concerns and suspicions, get help and seek advice or information; 08000 121 7000