Modern slavery: time to walk free

The Co-op’s policy and campaigns director, Paul Gerrard FIEMA, talks to Chris Seekings about rooting out modern slavery and human trafficking from supply chains.

When most people think of slavery, they envisage a bygone era in which victims were forced to travel thousands of miles in chains, often working on the US plantations of Alabama or Mississippi. What is less known is that there are an estimated 40.3 million people living in servitude today – 136,000 of them in the UK.

These victims are hidden from view and could be someone you see regularly in the street or sit next to on a bus or train. You might also find them in the supply chains of your local supermarket, with many people unaware they could be buying items produced by someone working against their will.

With almost 20 years’ experience as a civil servant, Paul Gerrard, now the Co-op’s policy and campaigns director, was busy working for the coalition government when it produced its groundbreaking Modern Slavery Act in 2015, requiring all large businesses to produce a statement outlining how they are tackling the issue. He explains how the Co-op, one of the UK’s largest and most historic food brands, is attempting to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from its supply chains.

Same problem, different century

“We have forced labour, as well as sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, which involves people being kept as slaves in private homes,” Gerrard says when describing slavery in Britain today. “But our research shows that around 40% of people in the country have no idea what modern slavery is – they think it is something from a long time ago, or in a place far away from here.”

Another common misconception, he believes, is that the issue is immigration-related; in fact, the most common nationality among the 5,000 people rescued from slavery in the UK last year was British. “Although this is different from the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1800s, it is still about control,” he says. “It is no longer about shackles and chains, but these criminals still own you by taking your passport, keeping you in a place you don’t want to be, holding a debt against you and threatening your family. It is done differently today, but control is still at the heart of it.”

Susceptible supply chains

When it comes to supply chains, Gerrard explains that one of the most typical examples of modern slavery involves debt bondage, when victims work for someone they are in debt to. “For food retailing, this will most likely occur in production,” he says. “The reality is that if you are a business with any scale, and you look properly in your supply chain, you will find an issue.” One of the biggest challenges, says Gerrard, is that many CEOs refuse to admit their business has a problem; another is the level of trust that retailers have with suppliers, and the amount of transparency companies include in their modern slavery reports.

Around 75% of the Co-op’s food suppliers have been working for the business for five years or more, with many having done so for decades – making it easier for the firm to stamp out the problem. “If you have got your board saying, ‘we have an issue here’, and you are working closely with your suppliers, that will drive you to constantly look again at how you tackle risks,” Gerrard says. “So it’s about transparency, a close relationship with your suppliers and senior recognition that there is an issue to tackle.”

However, there also appears to be a lack of recognition in government, with its official data on modern slavery being drastically different from the data of human rights organisations. The Walk Free Foundation estimates there are 136,000 victims in Britain today, while the government puts the number closer to 10,000. “I think that is a vast underestimate and if you speak to any charity, the 136,000 figure is much more plausible,” Gerrard says. “When you are trying to measure illicit activity, operational data will be sparse – but because awareness has become greater, the data has got stronger.”

Taking firms to task

Despite legislation being introduced almost three years ago to ensure firms with turnover of £36bn or more report on modern slavery, there are not actually any financial or criminal penalties for non-compliance. Remarkably, Gerrard says, 40% of the government’s own suppliers are not following the rules, and none have ever been threatened with an injunction to stop trading. “They could at least name and shame companies that fail to comply, but they are not even doing that,” he says. “I have never seen anything like it in all my life – there are significant penalties with General Data Protection Regulation, and companies are shamed for gender pay gap reporting, so why not here?”

Gerrard says the government should be proud that the UK was the first country to introduce a Modern Slavery Act, but has since been so busy taking the plaudits that it has “literally done nothing to enforce it”. He believes ministers think it should be down to customers to drive change, but this is not happening because it is too difficult for the public to know who is tackling the issue and who isn’t.

“When you get into a system where it is easier and cheaper to be non-compliant, you are in a really bad place”

The Co-op is one of 40 businesses that wrote to the prime minister, asking the government to produce an online registry that would allow customers to see which companies have produced a statement on modern slavery. “You must name and shame them,” he says. “Half of businesses have not complied with the rules and there is no consequence. When you get into a system where it is easier and cheaper to be non-compliant than compliant, you are in a really bad place.”

Harsh reality

Gerrard goes on to outline the grim reality facing victims of modern slavery, recalling one incident involving an individual held in debt bondage by a gangmaster in a supply chain of one of the Co-op’s suppliers.

This person had let slip at a Christmas party that his wages had been going straight to a criminal who was holding him against his will, and that the only reason he was at the party was because it would have looked peculiar if he wasn’t there. “Our first reaction was, is this individual now safe? Once we knew the answer was yes, we then considered what to do about it,” Gerrard explains. “A company’s first response shouldn’t be, as it often is, ‘What is the risk to our business?’”

The most harrowing story he recounts involves a woman from the Indian subcontinent who had been a slave for 36 years before being rescued in England; she had been enslaved at the age of six, and then sold as property six times. “The only reason she was rescued was because the money she had used to buy food for the family she was a slave to was counterfeit, and she got caught by the police.”

Bright future

The lady in this particular case ended up being one of the lucky ones – the detection rate for modern slavery in the UK is estimated to be around 4%. She was enrolled into the Co-op’s Bright Future programme, which offers victims the opportunity of a paid work placement, and a job at its food business if they are capable. “What that did for her was give her back a sense of dignity, and a sense of ‘I am in control of my destiny, I can make my own money and make my own choices in life’,” Gerrard says.

Approximately 40% of people rescued from modern slavery, however, are thought to return to their enslavers. Part of the problem, Gerrard explains, is that the government only offers 45 days’ support, after which victims have a limited number of options. The Co-op has since written to the Home Affairs Select Commitee’s inquiry into modern slavery, arguing that legal requirements for large firms be tightened and extended to public bodies. Gerrard also hopes the Bright Future programme, which is already supported by 15 businesses, becomes a core part of the government’s support for suvivors, offering a range of employment opportunities.  “We can offer all sorts of jobs – in a shop, store logistics factory, or head office – but some don’t want that,” he says. “They might want to work in catering, or production, so we are asking more companies to join us. We want Bright Futures to be a set of businesses that help provide victims with jobs right across the country.”

The Co-op has been tackling modern slavery since it was founded in 1844, but there are many others taking the lead, like John Lewis, M&S and the Carphone Warehouse. “Ultimately, this is an issue for businesses to take seriously,” Gerrard says. “They are the ones that can help identify victims and give them their lives back.”


Modern slavery - a shockingly widespread problem


  • 40.3m people live in servitude, globally
  • 5,000 people were rescued from slavery in the UK last year
  • 136,000 people are slaves in Britain today, according to the Walk Free Foundation
  • 10,000 is the government’s estimate of how many slaves there are in Britain today
  • 40% of the government’s own suppliers are not following the rules on modern slavery reporting
  • 40% of those rescued from modern slavery are thought to return to their enslavers





Chris Seekings is a reporter for TRANSFORM

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