Local authorities must do more than meet the ‘bare minimum of the Modern Slavery Act’, writes Paul Gerrard. With councils spending more than £40bn a year, there is leverage that can and should be used for social good
The Modern Slavery Charter was launched by the Co-op Party last year, with just six initial council signatories, but with the support of many organisations like the Co-op Group and charities who have been working to tackle this issue.
Slavery has always been an important issue for the co-operative movement, starting back in 1862, when the founders of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), brought together 5,000 Lancashire cotton weavers and sent a letter on their behalf supporting Abraham Lincoln’s fight against slavery.
But slavery has not disappeared with the Abolition Act. In fact, there are more people in slavery today than at any point in human history, with an estimated 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK in 2016 and 44 million worldwide.
The most moving aspect of the charter launch was the ability for two survivors who had been on our Bright Future programme to share their experiences and tell of the challenge of turning the lives around. Helping people in slavery is deep in our roots, and the reason the Co-operative Party is involved is because businesses can be transformative – businesses employ people, and employment is the single biggest thing that will help victims of slavery become survivors of slavery.
Bright Future helps victims of modern slavery to rebuild their lives. We do this by offering them paid work placements within our business which, if they can do the job, will lead to permanent employment. We started two years ago with one charity and the Co-op but now Bright Future is a partnership of 26 charities and 18 businesses all working together to provide survivors with the opportunity to regain control of their lives. It has already helped over 100 survivors and aims to provide opportunities for hundreds more in the coming years.
The charter came into being as the co-operative movement has been active in tackling modern slavery, but we felt there was a role for local councils to play, beyond their statutory duties for victims. With councils spending more than £40bn a year, there is leverage that can be used and should be used for social good. By ensuring staff are trained to understand this issue, challenging abnormally low-cost tenders, and ensuring contractors allow workers to freely join a trade union and are covered by whistleblowing systems, there is the ability to create an environment where business is not done at the expense of exploited individuals.
One year on, the charter has 85 councils as signatories, across the political divide. Labour & Co-operative, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and independents have all heard the call to tackle this issue and acted in their councils. Millions of people now live in areas covered by the charter, from Surrey CC to Patchway Town Council.
As Islington LBC’s first annual report says, this is not the end of the matter. More can be done and those involved in the trade are continuously developing new ways of enslaving their victims.
We are supporting the private bill by Lord McColl to ensure that victims get 12 months of support instead of the current 90 days.
Just like UK businesses need to do more than the bare minimum of the Modern Slavery Act, so do councils and, by waking up to this human rights crisis and doing things differently together, we can bring about change.
Paul Gerrard is campaigns and policy director of the Co-op Group