Cristina Talens: Scourge of slavery can sprout up at the dining table

COME Christmas Day, many of us will enjoy a turkey dinner with all the trimmings and not give a second thought to just what went into bringing it to our tables in the first place.
Last minute Christmas shoopers should be more aware about the prevalence of modern slavery.Last minute Christmas shoopers should be more aware about the prevalence of modern slavery.
Last minute Christmas shoopers should be more aware about the prevalence of modern slavery.

If we did, it’s probably fair to say that most of us would quickly lose our appetite. And not necessarily for the reasons that most people might initially suspect.

While the sometimes awful conditions that livestock are raised in have come in for plenty of media scrutiny, people are less aware of the fact that a growing number of people employed in food and drink supply chains are subject to sometimes equally shocking working and living conditions. They are in situations of modern day slavery and their number is growing, perhaps because for the first time, companies are finally beginning to look and measure the risk.

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In the UK, an estimated 13,000 people are working in situations of modern day slavery in a myriad of different industries, whether that’s hospitality, domestic work, agriculture, retail, organ harvesting or the sex trade. And the food industry, owing to its complex global supply chains and the fact that it often depends on migrant workers, both in the UK and in our supply chains abroad, is exposed to this like few other sectors.

This problem is perhaps most visible in the run-up to Christmas, when thousands of additional temporary workers are required to help grow, produce and package the food that adorns our plates come the big day. Previous coverage on exploitative labour practices in farming shows that working conditions at some meat- processing sites in Ireland and the UK could be better. So what does this mean for our Christmas turkey? We know that exploitative labour practices are prevalent in certain horticultural industries too, including the production and picking of cabbages, sprouts, onions and potatoes.

Unfortunately, there are no specific figures around just how many people are being put to work in exploitative or modern slavery conditions in the food sector by unscrupulous gangmasters but all of the evidence, from police reports through to accounts given by formerly exploited workers, suggests that it’s a major problem.

That’s not to say that progress isn’t being made. Last year, the Government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the first piece of UK legislation focusing on the prevention and prosecution of modern slavery and the protection of victims.

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The Act stipulates that any business with an annual turnover of £36m or above is required to provide a statement in a prominent place on its website within six months of the end of the financial year, setting out what steps it has taken to ensure there is no slavery in any part of its business, including its supply chains.

For businesses with a financial year running from April to March, this meant September 30, 2016, was the first important deadline. However, so far, there has been a deafening silence from business in response to this legislation. The indications are that businesses have either been unresponsive or are waiting until the last possible moment to put something out. Just a small percentage have published statements thus far and, according to figures from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, just 22 of these meet the minimum legal requirements.

And it’s not just big business that is being slow to take the issue of modern slavery seriously either. In August, it was reported that only 100 British companies had signed up to the Transparency in the Supply Chain database, which allows firms to confidentially admit when they find suppliers with exploitative labour practices.

So what’s holding them back? In some cases it’s undoubtedly a case of not knowing where to start. Perhaps there’s also a fear that any admission of inactivity or oversight will result in a public and media backlash – even though hiding such a problem is only likely to make things worse for businesses in the long run, certainly in terms of reputational damage.

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Whatever it is, things need to change and fast. While in the past the food sector may have been able to point to a lack of data and poor visibility on specific situations, much better intelligence is now available, meaning companies have no excuse not to act.

Now is the time for businesses to take a stand and show their commitment to addressing an issue which will only worsen without their backing.

Consumers have a major role to play in all of this too – after all, we’re the ones who buy and consume the food at the end of the day. And yet most people are oblivious to the problem. Recent research commissioned by the team here at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute found that more than half of us (55 per cent) admit to not being aware of the most common signs of slavery. Clearly, greater education in this area is urgently required.

Cristina Talens is a director at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of slavery and emancipation.

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