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Will the New Act Abolish Slavery in the UK?

David Cameron has made a commitment that all British businesses will be forced to prove the steps they are taking to stop slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains in line with the new Modern Slavery Act – but is it enough?

Slavery existed as an industry for over 230 years. It represents a colossal stretch of world history. Since the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1865, gone are the African-American slaves in the cotton farms of the Deep South, the chain-gangs and the plantation workers - but forced labour of the same gravity still exists today in every corner of the globe. And Britain is no exception.

"It is walking our streets, supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind the curtains in an ordinary street... Something most of us thought consigned to history books.” Monique Villa, head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reminds us that slavery is happening on our doorstep and is a “shameful and shocking presence in modern Britain."

We couldn’t agree more. Reddy Co dedicates huge effort to uncovering and addressing labour inequality in global supply chains through our RTW Service. There is much work to be done. Foreign Secretary William Hague reveals: “There are more people suffering some kind of slavery today than were enslaved during the entire 18th century. Gangs make billions of pounds of profit by trafficking vulnerable people, including into Britain.”

Despite the UK and Ireland being awarded the best ratings of 162 countries ranked on the Global Slavery Index 2013, “this does not mean these countries are slavery free,” the Walk Free Foundation report says. “On the contrary, it is estimated that there are between 4,200 - 4,600 people in modern slavery in the United Kingdom alone.”

Over the past three years, we’ve learned of 24 captives held by an organised crime group in Bedfordshire, the son of one of Britain’s top anti-slavery experts ‘subjected to a six-week campaign of 'unpleasant and casual' violence’, and a 10-year-old deaf girl kept in a cellar in Manchester as a virtual slave for almost a decade.

One of the most shocking headlines in recent years told of two people arrested after police rescued three alleged slavery victims, including a 30-year-old woman who had spent her whole life in servitude.

Less inconceivable now perhaps that there are similarities between the appalling working conditions of the 19th century and those in contemporary society. They are simply better hidden.

Migrant workers are often already used to low wages and unpleasant working conditions, so they come to accept their situation as better than nothing. Some victims may not even consider themselves as such, making them even harder to protect.

There are an estimated 10,000 gang-masters employing up to 800,000 undocumented migrant workers in the UK on criminally low wages. Tens of thousands of women and children have been brought into the country for the direct purpose of sexual exploitation, and the other strand of ‘homegrown slavery’ (i.e. no movement across international borders),targets mostly the homeless and those with learning difficulties.

We sincerely hope the new Act will make a difference here in the UK and Ireland and propagate slavery intolerance further afield. It is scandalous enough that we have an under-examined history of supporting slavery; there can be no more burying our heads in the sand. We have just as much responsibility as those who petitioned and fought to abolish the slave trade two hundred years ago.

Rebecca Taylor is a Product Development Manager who specialises in ethical and sustainable supply chain business practices. Rebecca has worked closely with stakeholders at each stage of the value chain to successfully develop, and deliver the Reddy Co RTW Service.

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