The UK Modern Slavery Bill and the Hospitality Industry

On February 16th a briefing was held at the Radisson Blu Portman Hotel in London to introduce the UK Modern Slavery Bill and to discuss its implications for the hospitality industry. Modern slavery is an over-arching term that includes human trafficking, slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour. The proposed Bill is designed to tackle these human rights offenses and requires organizations to disclose on an annual basis the steps undertaken to ensure that trafficking is not taking place in any part of the organization, including their supply chain.

The briefing was chaired by Neill Wilkins from the Institute of Human Rights and Business.Wilkins began the session by introducing the various types of trafficking. Trafficking occurs when a person arranges or facilitates the travel of another person for the purposes of exploitation. There are three main criteria that underpin trafficking: movement, coercion and exploitation. While coercion can take place by force or fraud, coercion by fraud is far more common an occurrence.  According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), forced labour has six key indicators including physical or sexual violence, restriction on movement, bonded labour, withholding of wages, retention of passports and identity documents and the threat of denunciation to authorities.

Within the hotel industry, the risk of trafficking is increasing given the growing reliance on recruitment agencies and agency labour. While the advantages to hotels of using recruitment agencies are recognized, the use of agency workers creates a distance between the employer and the employee which, in turn, creates a number of additional risks for organizations. These risks include those to workers, to brand reputation, to exposure to criminality and to the reputation of the industry. Businesses are encouraged to act responsibly and respect human rights and adopt the SEE formula: Scrutinise, Engage and Ensure when using agency labour.

Whilst the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) regulates all businesses providing workers to the fresh produce supply chain and horticulture industry, to make sure they meet the employment standards required by law, no such licensing authority exists for the hospitality industry.

There are however current best practice guidelines available to use when checking and using recruitment agencies. These and other practical products and programmes, to encourage best ‘human rights’ practices within the industry have been developed by the International Tourism Partnership. Fran Hughes, Head of Programmes for ITP, provided the audience with an overview of these products.

Klara Skrivankova from Anti-Slavery Internationalspoke briefly about the long history of this organization. She advised, however, that while slavery has been abolished around the globe, it has not been eradicated. In fact, it is considered more prevalent today than it was in Abraham Lincoln’s day. Skrivankova reported that in the UK, 10-13,000 people are affected by modern slavery but ‘the chains’ that bind people to forced labour are rarely visible. Instead, these chains are psychological ones which make forced labour difficult to detect and hard to combat. In other words, there is a clear need for the Modern Slavery Bill.

In its current state, the Bill directs that any business with a turnover threshold of GBP 60m will be required to disclose their policies and practices to ensure ethical labour practices. Skrivankova suggested however that the hospitality industry could learn from other sectors and called for initiatives to encourage the sharing of best practice.

The final speaker was Helen McTaggart, the Ethical Trading Manager for Marks & Spencer’s Foods. Helen emphasized the commonality between the retail and hospitality sectors as being the importance of brands and the high expectations of customers. M&S take a tiered and risk-based approach to assess exposure when dealing with their suppliers. They are also part of a collaborative initiative, Stronger Together, to deter, detect and eradicate unethical labour practices.

A lively discussion followed suit that focussed on particular issues in the industry. One key concern was the prevalent use of franchising and management contracts. Franchisees for example are legal entities in their own right and it is not clear in the current bill the extent to which the franchisor will be held responsible for the acts of franchisees. However there is also a difference between legal responsibility and legal liability. The principal of a person ‘knows or ought to know’ could mean that franchisors could be subject to criminal liability.

Some concerns were expressed about the UK Modern Slavery Bill’s similarity to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act which did not actually produce the levels of disclosure that the legislators would wish for. However, it was argued that in the UK Modern Slavery Bill there is a ‘sunset clause’ that will allow changes as more experience through its implementation is gained. The main point raised was that the Bill is only about disclosure and does not tackle the crime as it does not offer any improvements to the way modern slavery is policed or its victims are legally and morally supported.

Whilst the UK Modern Slavery Bill is considered a good step in the right direction to address trafficking and forced labour issues, it is not yet finalized. There is a commitment by all stakeholders however to ensure that the Bill is passed by March 26, 2015. In the meantime, it is clear that hospitality businesses need stronger support in addressing the problem within the sector and it is in this direction that the COMBAT project is moving with its three-pronged approach: to equip the industry with action-oriented policies and standards from an operations perspective, a law enforcement perspective and a victim’ s perspective.

− Maureen Brookes, Reader in Marketing and Teaching Fellow within the Oxford School of Hospitality Management at Oxford Brookes University

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