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How the world fights modern slavery

25 June 2020: The different legislative approaches employed around the world to eradicate modern slavery.

In the 21st century, it is a sad fact we still need legislation to prevent slavery. It is estimated that there are 20 to 30 million slaves in the world, over 10,000 of whom are in the UK. This has led to a recent spate of legislation designed to combat slavery and human trafficking around the globe. But rather than just (re)state that it is a criminal offence to keep people as slaves or engage in human trafficking, new approaches have been adopted.

The UK and Australia: reporting to avoid reputational damage

The UK's "Modern Slavery Act 2015" (the MSA) came into force on 29 October 2015. In 2018, Australia introduced its "Modern Slavery Act". Both established an annual modern slavery reporting requirement. In the UK organisations with a turnover of over £36 million must publish a report on what they are doing to combat slavery – Section 54 'Transparency in Supply Chains' Statement. In Australia, annual Modern Slavery Statements specifying the actions they have taken to address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains must be provided to the Minister of Home Affairs. Unlike in the UK, the Australian statements will be published on a central registry, freely accessible to the public. In both cases, there are no criminal charges for non- compliance, although compliance can be enforced. Instead, it is the threat of reputational damage and pressure from consumers, investors and other stakeholders to do more to combat slavery that should encourage organisations to take the issue and their responsibilities seriously.

The USA: a level playing field

California's "Transparency in Supply Chains Act" in 2010 employed a reporting requirement in much the same way as in Australia and the UK. Still, this approach has not been adopted across the US as a whole. Instead, the federal government introduced in 2015 a "Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act" 2015, designed to create a level playing field by banning imports of goods made through forced labour rather than combatting slavery or human trafficking at source.

The Netherlands: emphasis on child labour

The Dutch "Child Labour Due Diligence Act" (due to come into force in 2021) applies to all companies that sell or supply goods or services to Dutch consumers, no matter where the company is based or registered, and irrespective of its legal form or size. Companies will need to identify whether child labour is present in their supply chains and if so, develop a plan to combat it. Financial and custodial penalties will be imposed for non-compliance.

EU and France: human rights due diligence

The French 2017 "Duty of Vigilance Law" imposes an annual reporting requirement regarding human rights and environmental violations in supply chains. Unusually, victims or concerned parties can report companies that fail to monitor or publish reports. Still, if a company can prove that it has implemented a vigilance plan, it can escape liability. Fines of up to 10m Euros can be imposed for non-compliance.

In April 2020, the EU announced its intention to propose a law requiring businesses to carry out due diligence to assess the potential human rights and environmental impacts of their operations and supply chains. It follows an EU commissioned a study that concluded that mandatory due diligence requirements would yield the most positive impact in terms of reducing the adverse human rights impacts of businesses and their supply chains. The new law will apply to all companies and impose a "legal standard of care". No liability would arise if the business can show it undertook reasonable due diligence.

The future

All the above place legal obligations on organisations to make them behave more responsibly. Or at least that is the theory – the results to date have been very mixed, and there is a fear that the pressures on supply chains and changes in demand due to COVID-19 may result in organisations taking their eye off the ball.