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Businesses urged to beware of rising modern slavery risk

With modern slavery a growing problem in the UK and abroad, GC Business Growth Hub is running quarterly awareness sessions to help businesses reduce the risk of slavery in their supply chain.

According to the Global Slavery Index, more than 40 million people were estimated to be in modern slavery worldwide in 2016, including a staggering 136,000 people in the UK.

Modern slavery is defined as someone who is subjected to control and treated as property; are under servitude or forced to work; and/or have been trafficked with a view to being exploited.

The problem is believed to be growing. Well-documented discoveries in the last year alone include the tomato industry in Italy, cotton in China and garment manufacturing in Leicester. Beyond the ethical challenges, the existence of modern slavery in the supply chain brings significant reputational and legal risk.

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However, awareness within the UK remains low. A survey in 2017, two years after the Modern Slavery Act was introduced, found that one in five people had never heard of modern slavery.

The Business Growth Hub is now running quarterly online workshops to raise awareness of the pitfalls of modern slavery and help Greater Manchester SMEs to identify risks in their supply chain.

Manufacturing Advisor Geoff Crossley said:

“There are two potential areas of modern slavery that businesses really need to be aware of. One is internal to the UK and the other is in external supply chains overseas. The former is simpler because it’s about being aware who are you buying from directly. What do you know about them? Have you visited their factory? What evidence do you have that they follow the correct guidelines on working practices and conditions?

“Make no mistake, modern slavery exists in Greater Manchester. There are nefarious organisations out there that seek to exploit people to sell products at the lowest possible cost. And it’s not just confined to the usual suspects like textiles, agriculture, construction and hospitality - any industry that involves low cost, low skilled labour has the potential to be infiltrated.

“Then there are modern slavery risks overseas. The prevalence of modern slavery in some regions can be significant. The most topical example at the moment is Xinjiang province in China, where the growing evidence of mass incarceration and forced labour of Uighur people is linked to the cotton industry. More than 80 per cent of China’s cotton trade is implicated and several well-known brands are now grappling with the reputational impact of sourcing from that region.”

To minimise risk as an importer, manufacturers are encouraged to use the Global Slavery Index, which provides broad data on the chances of modern slavery per 1,000 people in each country. A high index score is an indicator that businesses should undertake additional due diligence on suppliers in that region.

Businesses are also encouraged to educate themselves on the signs of modern slavery in the UK. Modern slavery charity Unseen provides a free app that helps people to identify the warning signs and report concerns. Geoff explained:

“It’s important for manufacturers to look out for odd behaviour on industrial estates. Lots of people turning up at once early in the morning or late at night, disappearing inside for long hours, not wearing PPE, looking dishevelled or unkempt, not wanting to talk or engage; these are all warning signs.”

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