Britain’s millions of small and medium sized businesses may assume that modern slavery has nothing to do with them, as they’re not major firms with a global footprint. Little do they know that a Cornwall café owner could be using coffee produced by child labour in Colombia, or that a tech start-up’s furniture could be made by forced labour in China.
In today’s Global Britain, supply chains reach across the globe, and for them to be free of modern slavery, every business, no matter its size, has to be part of this fight. But most SMEs will simply not have the resources to hand to trace back through their supply chains.
There are currently 40 million people trapped in modern slavery worldwide because, sadly, there is a market for forced and cheap labour. This market is often an unknowing one. Most British business owners are decent, hardworking, responsible people who want to do the right thing by their employees and the communities they support. And yet, when it comes to modern slavery, too many business owners are not making responsible decisions because they are simply not aware of the potential implications of opting for a supplier whose costs seem too good to be true.
The UK’s six million SMEs, which accounts for three-fifths of employment, are truly the lifeblood of our economy. Because of this, they are in a prime position to play a critical role in tackling modern slavery.
Over the last year, many businesses have felt the pressure to cut costs where they can. Yet just a few moments spent checking the practices of suppliers and business partners could save a life.
Imagine the collective power that British businesses have to put a stop to modern slavery and human exploitation simply by making informed and ethical choices. Each business working with their suppliers to address the risk of modern slavery means several more lives potentially saved, however far away. To cut off supply chains which abuse people, we need to cut off the demand. That’s why SMEs need to be part of the effort to make informed choices and check their suppliers for exploitation.
To date, the Government has made great strides in combatting modern slavery, most notably with the Modern Slavery Act. As Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, and as director of anti-modern slavery charity Shiva Foundation, we are jointly calling on every business, regardless of size, to join the fight against modern slavery and think critically and responsibly about their own supply chains.
Stop the Traffik and the Shiva Foundation have published a toolkit for SMEs to do this easily. It need not be a cumbersome task. It helps business owners, regardless of their sector, size or city, to make informed decisions about mitigating the risk of modern slavery in their operations – whether it’s paying workers’ wages directly into their accounts, instead of into those of third parties, or spotting the signs of exploitation.
If all UK businesses work with their suppliers to tackle modern slavery, thus restricting demand for cheap and forced labour, we will be one step closer to finally putting an end to this horrendous crime once and for all.
As a truly Global Britain, we all need to take responsibility for the change we want to see in the world – and that change should start here.