Tackling Exploitation in the Supply Chain

LUPC and SUPC (London Universities and the Southern Universities Purchasing Consortia) held their second joint Conference & Exhibition last Wednesday 24th May in London’s South Bank. It attracted senior procurement decision makers from across the public sector, including higher education, further education, museums, galleries, the arts, sciences and government departments and brought together members and framework suppliers to learn about current trends, exhibit, network and discuss. Our initial post summed up the day.

As well as working to maximise value for member organisations in the buying and selling of goods and services, the consortia are committed to doing this while promoting respect for human rights in public sector supply chains. In fact, they work collaboratively with other organisations actively to encourage public procurement practitioners and decision makers to understand, identify and take steps towards eliminating human exploitation in the supply chain.

Invited to help raise awareness on the day was Tony Byrne of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLA) – the non-departmental public body that works in partnership with the National Crime Agency to help identify and protect vulnerable and exploited workers, created after the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers tragedy. He explained that there are many people who just do not know what’s going on in their supply chains, so the GLA is a source to help them look for signs of forced labour and where to go for help.

Sadly, exploitation is on the increase in the UK (a five-fold increase in the number of potential victims in three years), and it runs deep, from care homes to facilities management to hospitality – it occurs in every sector. And we see it every day – but do we bother to question, for example, the employment status of the workers at the local car wash? That’s one of the high target areas of potential abuse, alongside packaging factories, food processing, construction labour, domestic work, and fisheries. In fact sexual exploitation, proportionally dominated by female workers, and labour exploitation, dominated by male workers, share equal tranches of the adult human trafficking pie chart. The problem he explains, is the high demand for low-skilled, low-pay, temporary workers. In fact, of the 31 million UK workers, 10.8 million are at high risk, with forced labour, zero hour contracts, sham marriages and organ farming among the top scenarios.

Then you have the associated crimes, like work-finding fees, college fraud, benefit fraud, intimidation, guns and drugs, cybercrime and theft. A recent power-and-profit scenario worked like this – labour locally sourced (in home country); housed in the UK (11 people in three bedrooms – stripped of everything); ‘controllers’ took over their bank accounts; they paid them £5 to £20 a week; they claimed benefits on their behalf; controllers’ wives stole the workers’ cash; they drove expensive cars and wore expensive jewellery; they made in excess of £1.3 million while the workers lived in fear of assaults. People are low risk, high profit. The audience were surprised to hear that once convicted, the controllers got 40 months in prison and their wives 8 months.

So why was he addressing this to a room full of procurement heads, you might ask. Well, the GLA believes organisations should be asking themselves: do we have an in-house ‘trainer’ – an identified person who would explain how to spot the signs of forced labour in the supply chain. Do we have a policy statement that explains what to do if you do suspect or know of occurrences in the supply chain. And who is closest to the supply chain in any organisation? – the procurement professional. Audits don’t catch criminals – he says. And in today’s market of heightened awareness and transparency – if you do have slavery in your supply chain, and do nothing about it, the big end users (like the supermarkets) will drop you like a hot potato.

Most of the audience did not know that any organisation with a turnover above £36 million must prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year (section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015). The GLA are harnessing stronger powers to root out this type of corruption, but they can’t do it alone – they will investigate labour law offences and search and seize evidence, and will have the power to issue enforcement undertakings, and they will provide technical and tactical assistance to help organisations see their supply chain single points of failure.

We asked, given that we all want a clean supply chain, what organisations can do to see down through their second and third tiers and beyond. At the moment, he says, it’s very much down to the individual company how they handle it and depends on how far they want to go – but he hopes legislation will get stronger. It comes down to the robustness of the contract agreement; whether you go and visit the business and examine their records; whether you’ve requested anonymous feedback forms, how much you stipulate that your T1 does the same for its T1 and so on.

A quote from the Ashridge Modern Slavery Report sums up the role procurement can play:

We found that buyers and procurement teams were probably the most important people to engage, next to senior management, in the implementation of an approach to address ethical trade and modern slavery issues – particularly ensuring they understand the issues and the tensions and can make appropriate decisions in their daily activity.”

To understand more, or to discuss, please feel free to contact Tony at tony.byrne@gla.gov.uk or call confidentially on 0800 432 0804


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