John Oldfield: Honouring Wilberforce '“ firms must join 21st century slavery fight

IN the home town of one of the abolition movement's greatest heroes '“ William Wilberforce '“ the final pieces are being put in place for the annual Freedom Festival, which opens today.

Hull's Freedopm Festival will once again shine a slight on slavery.

Now in its 10th year, the city-wide event is an exciting cultural celebration of Hull’s historic links with freedom. At the same time, it also challenges what freedom means in 2016, through some hard-hitting shows.

In an age when the scourge of contemporary slavery still does not register in most people’s minds, the Freedom Festival will serve as a stark reminder that it remains unfinished business, in the Yorkshire region, and across the world.

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Slavery often plays out in plain sight, but is difficult to detect. It is a huge, regularly silenced issue, that is much more widespread that most could ever imagine.

According to the most recent Global Slavery Index, there are approximately 45.8 million people enslaved in the world today. Slavery is not confined to poorer countries, although this is where it is most prevalent, but very much exists in so-called ‘rich countries’ including the UK.

The Home Office estimates that there are approximately 13,000 enslaved people in the UK, but the actual number is probably much higher. Although, media interest has increased and there is a greater public awareness, this is a problem that won’t be solved without persistent focus and tough action.

But we are making progress. Almost a year and a half since her Modern Slavery Act was introduced, Theresa May should be applauded for making the fight against modern slavery one of her first pledges as Prime Minister and bringing these issues firmly into the spotlight.

At the time of its introduction in 2015, the Act came under a lot of scrutiny from critics for not going far enough. I was not one of them.

I believe that its introduction, and the ongoing support from the Prime Minister, is a good step in the right direction, not least because it means that businesses must now look at modern slavery within their own operations – the people they employ – and within their supply chains – the people they buy goods from.

Overall, the true power of the Act, and its relevance to companies and organisations worldwide, is its call for ultimate transparency.

Under the Act, those businesses with an annual turnover of £36m or above are required to provide a statement on slavery and human trafficking in their annual report. They should publish a statement within six months of year ends, ending after March 2016. With the deadline looming, only 150 companies have done this. There should be at least 12,000.

Early indications are that businesses have either been unresponsive or are waiting until the last moment to put something out. Perhaps they are not concerned about their reputation. But, in the UK alone there are more than 100 NGOs who will be reviewing and commenting on these statements of compliance and highlighting poor action or lack of activity. A failure to take action could result in a negative backlash, in the media or elsewhere. The hope is that consumers – the real drivers of change – will also stand up and take note.

Events such as the Freedom Festival are powerful vehicles for reminding us all about what is happening in plain sight, and play a critical role in raising public awareness.

We’ve taken a big step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot more we can do. Here at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute, we have a few suggestions for helping in this fight against modern slavery:

Make the reporting process as transparent as possible, supporting the call of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre for a free and open-access registry of slavery and trafficking statements;

Consider immediate fines for those companies which don’t reply under the terms of the Modern Slavery Act;

Provide greater care and support for victims of slavery and trafficking, particularly children who are being forced to commit crimes;

Increase empowerment and give workers information in a language they understand, explaining their rights around pay, hours, holiday and benefits;

Companies could establish independent whistleblowing mechanisms where workers can report issues. Although it 
is not immediately clear how 
this can be done or by whom, there is already a reported upturn in slavery-related civil claims in the UK.

Together we can build on Hull’s legacy of freedom, raising awareness of the scourge of modern slavery.

The Freedom Festival takes place across Hull from September 2-4 and includes the Wilberforce Institute’s Stolen Lives event, which will be taking place on Saturday, a musical collaboration with local schools on the premise of freedom. Visit www.freedomfestival.co.uk/event/stolenlives/

Professor John Oldfield is the director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull.