Opinion: What lessons can be learned from the UK’s largest modern slavery case?

When Operation Fort – the largest modern slavery and human trafficking case to go through the British courts – hit the headlines last summer, it wasn’t just the offenders that were in the firing line.

The victims (92 identified, but an estimated 400 in total), had been working in the supply chains of supermarkets and DIY stores, picking fresh produce, making garden furniture, as well as infiltrating other sectors, such as waste recycling plants.

The lurid details of the emotional and physical abuse– sadly familiar to anyone who follows such cases – were written next to the names of the UK’s best known retailers. But it would be disingenuous to assume that these businesses were in some way unlucky: if cases like Operation Fort can happen in this sector, they can happen to any large supply chain.

Labour provision in agriculture is more tightly controlled than other industries, having been licensed since 2005. Nevertheless, the Polish organised crime group behind Operation Fort was active in this space from at least 2012, continuing long after the passing of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. And it was operating in a sector where the clients tend to be further ahead on the ethical agenda than other businesses, due to closer consumer scrutiny.

That’s not to say that spotting the crime would be easy, now or previously. The criminals ran a sophisticated operation. They infiltrated labour agencies. They moved victims in and out of businesses in random patterns to avoid detection. Suppliers not involved with this case have admitted that they could just as easily have been targeted, particularly at peak times when there is a rapid churn of temporary labour.

Nevertheless, there must have been many signs that weren’t picked up. The sight of dishevelled, distressed and hungry workers. Suspicious activity at banks, financial anomalies on agency payroll. The victims’ luck only changed when they met, by chance, a Polish charity worker in a soup kitchen. By then, the physical and emotional damage was done.

Over the past few months the IASC office has been meeting with many retailers and tier one suppliers to understand their response to Operation Fort.

Most companies have been able to demonstrate progress. For example, recognising the limitations of auditing, some are piloting new ways of engaging with workers, using apps, platforms, or third party surveys. The signs are promising, even if it’s still early days.

Awareness training is becoming the norm, at least in the upper tiers of supply chains, and larger organisations are setting up modern slavery working groups to challenge the internal status quo. Some retailers are recording how they are finding and fixing issues such as underpayment in their supply chains; tier one suppliers have introduced robust systems to track worker welfare.

However, this level of activity is by no means industry-wide. Good practice is in pockets, and organisations are at different stages of maturity. This manifests in different ways. For example, supply chains are shared. But some tier one suppliers are finding and reporting many more instances of exploitation than their peers.

Then there’s Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act – this requires businesses of a certain size to report on what they are doing to address modern slavery risk. Section 54 was supposed to level the playing field. But five years on ethically led organisations, who are putting genuine energy and resources into worker welfare, are still being forced to compete with negligent competitors.

Most scrutiny is towards the top of supply chains, but there are countless smaller growers and farmers that are much harder to reach. They don’t have resources of the large businesses. They may be financially fragile and under enormous time pressure to get the harvest in. If the supply of legitimate available labour dries up, the temptation to cut corners will surely grow.

We asked businesses: if something like Operation Fort was to happen in their supply chains again, were they confident that they would find it the second time around? Not one could give us a resounding yes.

This is both sobering and encouraging, because complacency is dangerous: for every new system introduced, criminals will try to find a way around it.

But we know that such groups find it harder to operate in environments where there are strong safeguards. The ongoing challenge is whether we can continue to foster such environments. Covid-19, an uncertain supply of workers and the looming recession are putting more pressure on supply chains than ever before.

The next few months are likely to be the most challenging for businesses in living memory. Our challenge is not to forget those in supply chains who have the least agency or voice.

Emma Crates is prevent lead at the office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

First published by the Thomas Reuters Foundation