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The U.K. is Ramping Up Fight Against Modern Slavery in Supply Chains

Britain’s battle against modern slavery has a new arrow in its quiver, thanks to a new online platform that seeks to expose—and shut down—overlooked hotspots where human-trafficking has managed to thrive. 

The brainchild of TISCreport (Transparency in Supply Chains), an open-data initiative committed to ending labor abuses in supply chains, the U.K. City Transparency Report is an interactive map that marries supplier compliance data from various cities, councils, districts and boroughs with real-time calls to Britain’s modern-slavery helpline.

By using the “easy-to-use” tool, members of the public will be able to learn not only how their elected representatives are allocating their funds but also what proportion of hotline calls originate from their districts, TISCreport said. 

“Labor exploitation and modern slavery are not just crimes that occur in far-away countries; we have victims right here, right now,” Jaya Chakrabarti, CEO of TISCreport, said in a statement last week. “An informative live map that purely presents the facts can help bring this alive for many who just can’t imagine what is going on right on their doorsteps.”

This level of transparency will also help public services better coordinate and target their resources when investigating potential victims, she added. 

Though the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, which was passed into law in 2015 by then-prime minister David Cameron, requires businesses with turnovers of 36 million pounds ($46 million) or more to release an annual slavery and human-trafficking statement, it does not apply to government bodies. 

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Proactive cities

Public-sector buyers can, however, tap into TISCreport’s platform to see if their suppliers comply with the Modern Slavery Act. By uploading their suppliers from their systems and checking them against available corporate data, buyers can maintain the transparency of their supply chains at “zero cost to the taxpayer,” said Stuart Gallemore, chief technology officer of TISCreport.

“As you can see from interrogating the infographic, there are just under 200,000 live supplier relationships being monitored from the U.K.’s local government bodies alone, with significantly more private-sector suppliers globally,” Gallemore said. “By making this data transparent for U.K. cities to use, we are already changing behaviors. It’s important to note that labor exploitation and modern slavery are in every supply chain. Proactive cities are using live transparency data to tackle these issues. If your city is on the map you should be very proud. If you don’t see your city, it doesn’t mean it is not doing anything about modern slavery, but simply not focussing on this particular open-data approach to supply-chain transparency. Obviously we hope your city will collaborate in the future.”

Britain harbors more than 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation. The nonprofit Unseen says the anti-slavery helpline has fielded more than 10,000 calls and online reports, indicating 11,000 possible victims in car washes, salons, building sites, brothels and more, since its inauguration in October 2016.

“It is horrible to think some of the goods and services we buy could have been produced by someone forced into modern slavery,” said Victoria Atkins, minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability. “This is abhorrent and as global leaders in the fight against modern slavery, we will not tolerate it.”

As other live transparency data sets are added to the map, Chakrabarti says she hopes the U.K. City Transparency Report will become the “best available picture of transparency of cities in the U.K.” and the key to preventing exploitative situations.

“The days of tick-box compliance are numbered,” she added. “Transparency data is everywhere if you know where to look and what to query. It’s live, rapidly changing and shows patterns that are otherwise hidden by companies with clever accountants.”

British retailers unite

The tool arrives just as British retailers such as Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, River Island and Next have agreed to work with law-enforcement agencies to root out modern slavery from their supply chains.

“Tens of thousands of people are employed in the textiles industry in the U.K. and it contributes billions of pounds to the economy,” Ian Waterfield, head of operations at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, a non-departmental public body, told Reuters. “That alone makes it an attractive proposition for unscrupulous employers and criminals who exploit workers.”

While specifics of the agreement have yet to be announced, the British Retail Consortium has already hailed the move an “important step” to end worker abuses.

“This is an important step in our collaborative efforts to end the ill treatment of any workers suffering under exploitative employers in U.K. fashion and textile factories,” the trade association said in a statement. “The responsible businesses signing up to this protocol demonstrate that relationships with suppliers have to be based on decent working practices. Joint efforts by industry and government are essential if we are to truly eradicate these abhorrent practices.”

All that retail firepower aside, the initiative has the backing of the U.K.’s  labor inspectorate, tax authority and immigration enforcement, as well as several industry organizations.

“Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime that denies its victims of liberty,” said Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, following the announcement. “I welcome the action being taken by businesses which are leading the way in being open and transparent about the modern slavery risks they face, and have pledged to raise awareness to prevent slavery, protect vulnerable workers and help bring more criminals to justice.”