Brexit’s impact on UK modern slavery governance

The following article considers the potential impacts of the UK’s departure from the European Union on the efforts against modern slavery. This blog reviews how Brexit may impact the UK’s ability to protect the victims of modern slavery and discovers the possibilities to mitigate the risk caused by Brexit as well as some suggestions on how to focus the Board on this issue.

UK and EU’s background to modern slavery

Until its departure form the EU, the UK has been part of the European Securities body, Europol, Eurojust and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). They are providing support to its members and preventing human trafficking, money laundering and fraud. These bodies, therefore, helped to protect victims of modern slavery in the UK. However, leaving the EU will automatically withdraw these benefits for the UK to support carrying out anti-trafficking operations. Although the UK Government expressed its interest in maintaining a close relationship with the EU but regretfully the direct cooperation to non- EU members with the EU is minimal. So far, the UK has negotiated the right to ‘opt-in’ to EU measures which are related to criminal justice and security, however some of these agreements are yet to be finalised.

Unfortunately, a significant proportion of workers’ rights in the UK are from EU law. The UK Government already expressed its intention to end a free movement between mainland Europe and the UK and introducing a new immigration system. However, the risk of these potentially restrictive immigration systems and proposed policies are likely to increase the exploitation of migrant workers and also likely to lead to the erosion of low skilled workers’ rights. The consequences can be unpredictable on the labour market for the vulnerable, low skilled workers. In terms of modern slavery prevention, the restrictive policies are unhelpful: limiting the number of legally migrant workers when there is a clear demand for labour in the UK only helps the human traffickers and gangs who are exploiting these workers.

To protect vulnerable workers from being exposed to modern slavery in the UK after Brexit, it will be necessary to enforce protective labour laws. It will be crucial to create an adequate and legal migration channel that will meet the realistic needs of the current labour market, for all sectors and skill levels.

Given the nature of most modern slavery related crimes, where victims are often recruited in EU states and transported and exploited in the UK, international cooperation will be needed in fighting these actions.

Businesses will need to address their supply chains in these challenging times to deal with this.

Businesses are not exempt

UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will mean that businesses need to pay extra attention to who they recruit. EU citizens who are already working for UK organisations may not know their legal rights post-Brexit. Some workers might still be brought into the UK by traffickers to work on a construction site, agriculture or hospitality-related jobs. This will mean that businesses need to gain a better understanding, they will need to ask more questions such as ‘How are they recruiting staff? Do they know their employment agencies and their subcontractors?’ and educate their own staff on modern slavery at a greater level. They are encouraged to build these aspects into their corporate strategy and focus a lot more on their supply chains if these starts outside of the UK.

My suggestions for businesses include implementing the following steps to tackle modern slavery:

1. Gather information on business process 2. Identify areas where Modern Slavery can occur 3. Focused audit and educating staff/managers 4. Offer support to your suppliers
Find areas that you don’t have control, for example, sub-contractors further down the supply chain Rank those areas for severity between 1-5, then treat and solve them as risks Your team need to understand the purpose. Audited areas need to be checked regularly Try to avoid supply chain disruptions and limit your risks, creating a value-adding partnership or staff secondment

Lastly, do we need to educate consumers, or are they addicted to cheap products? The trend of the addiction to low-cost products is a related but separate issue which needs a different approach.

The UK was one of the first countries in the world for its response to modern slavery with its Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Will Brexit reverse the efforts made in tackling the fight against modern slavery?

If the country wishes to remain a world leader in response to modern slavery, these challenges caused by Brexit will need to be carefully navigated.

Boglarka Radi

Boglarka is a member of The Chartered Governance Institute currently studying for a master’s degree in Corporate Governance.

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