Comment: The human rights agenda: what's different about modern slavery?

With the advent of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, I’ve been talking to many companies about the Act’s requirements and what their companies can do to identify and tackle modern slavery.  What has been interesting is the reaction I have had.

Whereas I have often found that companies continue to question the broad human rights agenda and can make arguments, like in the case of bribery, that suggest that human rights impacts are a necessary result of doing business in particular countries, there is no dispute about slavery.  No one tries to justify it, and everyone accepts that companies must do their best to eliminate it from their own operations and their supply chains.

What this means is that this topic is opening up a space for conversations in companies, which wasn’t there before. While compliance with the Act is relatively simple the companies I am encountering are genuine in enquiring about what they can do beyond this. This in turn is helping people to take a different perspective, and looking in terms of risks to people, rather than risk to the business. It is also helping to establish the connections within business – as the response is inherently multi-functional – and the governance processes to set and deliver policy. And as a result, it is starting to create space for broader discussions on human rights.

Finding a consensus issue with real momentum behind it is a promising place to be when you work in business and human rights. Of course, there is still wiggle room for those who like to argue about the grey area where poor labour conditions cross into a situation of slavery. However, the opportunity that modern slavery presents as a means to generate greater engagement on human rights among those working in business is an important one. Harnessing it effectively while the momentum exists is the real skill.