The backdrop for the Leicester garment factory scandal that erupted this past summer, with links to high-profile fashion brands such as BooHoo and Glasgow’s Quiz, was predominantly one of health concerns: low-paid staff forced to work in close quarters, allegedly during lockdown, leading to an early resurgence of Covid-19 infections in the area.

Amid claims that those workers were receiving as little as £3 to £3.50 per hour for their labour, the revelations out of Leicester also raised questions about the effectiveness of the UK’s modern slavery legislation. Hailed at the time of its passage as a “world first” in combating human trafficking, the Modern Slavery Act (2015) has since been criticised as toothless, and was due for legislative overhaul this year before the pandemic overtook nearly all other concerns.

Shan Saba, one of the Scottish recruitment industry’s leading campaigners against labour exploitation, says these events remind us of the need for further action as Anti-Slavery Day approaches on October 18. While amendments to tighten up the Modern Slavery Act have been delayed, they are still believed to be forthcoming, placing further onus on employers and recruitment specialists.

“When you talk about modern slavery, you are not necessarily talking about Eastern European labour, or labour from the Far East, and you are not necessarily talking about illegal immigrants,” Mr Saba said. “Modern slavery is a complex crime, and far more widespread, and closer to home, than many people realise.”

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Last year in Scotland, 512 people went through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the system in which those who say they have been enslaved can access housing, health care and legal aid while their claim is considered. That was a 125 per cent increase on 2018.

Mr Saba said that sort of rise likely reflects better policing and awareness, but is also the result of an increase in human trafficking.

For the third year in a row, the number of those in Scotland suffering under labour exploitation rose by more than those in sexual exploitation. The former accounted for 305 of those identified in Scotland in 2019, versus 113 for the latter, with the remainder categorised under domestic servitude or criminal exploitation.

Mr Saba was a key player in the formation of Scotland Against Modern Slavery, which aims to raise awareness of this criminality within the country’s business community. He got involved in the campaign after attending a training course to help recruiters identify the signs of individuals who are victims of human trafficking.

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His company, Brightwork, is Scotland’s largest recruiter of industrial labour, with heavy involvement in the food and drink sector. This industry is often targeted by human traffickers, particularly amid the growing shortage of seasonal agricultural workers caused by Brexit.

“The effect of Brexit was to push up the value of labour, which means the returns for criminals goes up as well,” Mr Saba said.

“The UK minimum wage at £8.72 is at a historic high, so legitimate labour remains relatively expensive. You might think that rising unemployment would make human trafficking less appealing, but with the economic fall-out from the pandemic and our departure from the EU coming at the end of this year, I fear it will only become more widespread.”

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Approximately 17,000 companies in the UK fall under the Modern Slavery Act, which applies to any firm that “carries on a business, or part of a business, in the UK” and has an annual turnover of more than £36 million. They are required to issue an annual statement on their measures to address the risk that modern slavery and human trafficking are taking place in their supply chains.

However, there is no statutory penalty for those who fail to comply. Mr Saba said the various options for legislative overhaul include requirements for more detailed and proactive policies, a “name and shame” public registry of those who fail to comply, an increase in fines and the potential for directors to be held personally liable for any breaches.

“Businesses need to take this far more seriously,” he said. “I don’t think people are going to be ready for those changes in legislation, because Covid has wiped away nearly everything but the effort to stay afloat.”