Modern slavery in agriculture


06 August 2018

Slavery is still a prominent issue despite its abolition almost two centuries ago. In fact, the agricultural sector has been deemed high risk for the exploitation and abuse of workers by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA). The spotlight on the farming sector has revealed some horrific conditions that an alarming number of farmworkers are subjected to. With the media revealing such shocking practices, it is unsurprising that the farming industry is facing pressure to improve standards. 

Even for the majority of farming businesses that would not even contemplate exploiting their workforce, the pressure is still on to show the public how they have committed to maintaining and improving working conditions.

Statements

To add to existing pressure on the farming industry, 2017 marked the first year in which companies that operate in the UK with a global annual turnover of £36m were required to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement. 

Without doubt, the written statement is not enough: the government has urged organisations to illustrate as detailed picture as possible of the steps that they have taken on the ground to address and eradicate modern slavery. If they have taken no steps, their statement must disclose that. 

Whilst ultimate responsibility lies with the senior managers of an organisation, it is useful for the HR department to be familiar with the requirements of the legislation when preparing for and drafting the statement. Preparing a statement is not easy: organisations are expected to map out their supply chains, identify key areas of risk and provide training at appropriate levels on the warning signs of modern slavery.

Cascading effect

The pressure to eradicate modern slavery is not intended or anticipated to stay at the top for long: large organisations are likely to commit to taking positive steps to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains as well as their own operations. The notion behind this is to apply downwards pressure, impacting smaller farmers and organisations. 

Many smaller business and farmers will find themselves being required to commit to maintaining certain working standards as part of their supply agreements. The pressure applied from the top may also go a step further, with larger businesses undertaking in their statements to carry out supplier due diligence. With smaller suppliers competing for valuable contracts, they will start to feel the thrust of the legislation: failure to maintain acceptable (and legal) working standards may serve to undermine their bargaining position, especially when their competitors have already stepped up.

Risks

The stakes are high: the GLAA is out in full force tackling the issue, with what certainly feels like a particular emphasis on both arable and livestock farming. 

Criminal sanctions often follow breaches of the legislation as well as the risk of being sued in the civil courts or company director sanctions. However, above all, the reputational risk for larger businesses is too big to not take the requirements seriously. Consumers are constantly raising questions and are more willing than ever to apply pressure where they believe a business has not taken sufficient steps to eradicate modern slavery. In addition, smaller suppliers that have failed in their commitments and as a consequence exposed their larger counterparts will seriously risk jeopardising their ability to compete for any future contracts within the industry. Ultimately, the legislations and requirements for the statements are designed to drive a cultural shift and oust from the marketplace the players that fall short of the legislation.

The content of this article is for general information only. If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in it further, please contact Laura Brown. Law covered as at August 2018.

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Birketts is a co-sponsor of the Farm Business Innovation Show at the NEC, Birmingham on 7-8 November 2018.