REUTERS | David Mdzinarishvili

Your modern slavery statement: making it a lifestyle choice

To borrow a much overused and somewhat clichéd term from the weight loss industry, your UK Modern Slavery Act (MSA) statement is not a diet, it is a lifestyle. Your company has to live and breathe the principles and policies that you have chosen to implement with the purpose of eradicating slavery in your supply chain. If management and the people in charge of implementation do not believe in the company’s MSA policies, they will have nothing to report at the end of the year.

So how do you turn the MSA diet into a lifestyle?

Start small.  I’m going to assume that you know your supply chain and that you know it well. That you have thought about how all the cogs move and hence where risks might lie. If you don’t then that is where you need to start.

It is easy to get overwhelmed reading section 54 of the MSA and not all companies will be able to devote full teams to the issue.

However, it is good to remember that section 54 details what may be included in your statement as opposed to what must be included. Instead of trying to implement, say, ten changes in a mediocre fashion, implement one change really well.

The change may be the introduction of audits on high risk suppliers or commencing supplier training, perhaps focusing in on a particularly vulnerable population within your supply chain. Think about the changes that you could implement which could effect a big change in that part of the supply chain. At HP, several years ago this one change was identifying the vulnerability of foreign migrant workers. We realised that we could effect real change by asking suppliers to employ these workers directly and thereby reduce the risk that these workers could be taken advantage of by labour brokers who might charge excessive fees. We were able to implement this change with our direct suppliers and thereby eliminate a layer of risk and improve the lives of these workers.

Get buy-in from colleagues and management.  People in the business will become more invested and keen to participate if they believe that the changes you implement will make a difference on the ground.

Discuss ideas with your colleagues. What benefits or challenges can they identify? Part of the role of the in-house lawyer is to facilitate those conversations.

Yes, the MSA statement is a legal requirement, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be the catalyst for a transformative, company-wide programme.

Metrics.  Going back to the diet analogy, if you don’t take measurements and do weigh-ins at the beginning and along the way it will be very difficult to evaluate the progress you are making. Think about how the company will be able to measure the progress of any initiatives or changes it implements and who will be accountable for measuring and reporting on that progress. A word of caution on metrics:

Just as with weigh-ins, they might not always be the perfect measure of progress, particularly at the beginning of the process. For example, you may have gained weight but that is because you built muscle. Is that bad? The same thing applies to your MSA metrics. If, due to your more rigorous programme, you actually found an instance of modern slavery, but you then took measures to address it, is that bad?

You will need to consider what exactly it is that you are measuring and how you will choose to report on those measures. Is it the number of audits or the scope and quality of the supplier engagement? The more audits you do, the more you may find, but remember, the aim of the MSA is not for companies to prove there is no slavery in their supply chain, but rather to show the measures they have implemented to help eradicate it. You will also need to consider whether disclosure in the UK might lead to some sort of admission in a third country.

But I’ll close with a reminder of the essence of and intent behind the MSA. I attended a conference a while ago where Karen Bradley MP, a Home Office minister at the time, gave a speech on the Act. She said that modern slavery was really hard to find and companies that did find it in their supply chain (and did something about it) should be applauded and not chastised. As companies rise to the occasion and MSA compliance programmes start to be scrutinised by NGOs and the industry, we can have some hope that the government and the community more widely will be ready to applaud companies that do find instances of slavery in their supply chain and then champion the fight to eliminate it.

For more information on Modern Slavery Act compliance, see Practical Law’s Modern Slavery Act 2015: toolkit.

More information is also available in recent blog posts: Benchmarking your Modern Slavery statement: race to the topBeyond Section 54: insights into Modern Slavery Act compliance best practice and more from the Trust Women Conference 2016Annual report drafting: what will your Modern Slavery Act statement say?; and Modern Slavery Act: vital insights from soft law.

Maricela Robles

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