Even if it proves to be the case there are no breaches of the Modern Slavery Act, the recent local lockdown in Leicester has raised questions about a number of less than ethical work practices in some parts of the textile industry in the city. Modern slavery is often hidden in plain sight, but it is also the case that exploitation can be complicated and difficult to prove especially where victims are so frightened and are understandably suspicious of authority.
It is widely acknowledged that modern slavery – poor conditions, wages below minimum wages, exploitation – is endemic is parts of our economy. Even the most ethical and well-meaning companies can fall foul of unscrupulous subcontractors who devise all manner of workarounds to avoid suspicion.
Whilst the Home Secretary was seemingly quick to blame political correctness on what appears to have happened in Leicester, Government has systematically underfunded key agencies in the fight against modern slavery. Government has also repeatedly introduced “flexible” employment law and encouraged the gig economy which have eroded union membership and recognition in certain sectors of the economy to the extent that they find it challenging to protect workers and stand up to labour abuses.
As sure as day follows night, every crisis sees Ministers wanting to make their mark by introducing new, tougher, better legislation – so it should come as no surprise to hear that the Home Secretary is also thinking along those lines. And whilst we should be open-minded about what her civil service team might propose, we should bear in mind that good politics is just as much about the efficient operation of what is in place as designing what comes next.
What is needed in the short term – and what is likely to make the most difference right now for victims of modern slavery – is focusing on known issues like statutory regulation of problem industries like car washes, adequate funding support for victims, ensuring that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the Health and Safety Executive are adequately funded, and that the recommendations from the review of the Modern Slavery Act are considered and enacted. In short, what is needed now is what Co-operative Party MPs have long been pressing the Government to do. Now, they need to act on it.