The UK risks losing its status as a leader in the fight against slavery

Australia and the United Kingdom consider themselves global leaders in the modern anti-slavery movement.

The UK was first country to pass modern slavery laws, while Australia was the second. Both have committed significant funding to anti-slavery programs and initiatives, were among the 37 countries to sign the call to action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking in 2017, and have created specific diplomatic posts to tackle slavery and human trafficking.

With recent estimates suggesting slavery has worsened over the past decade and some 50 million people are enslaved, now is the time for countries to strengthen their resolve. Recent developments in the UK, however, suggest that the opposite is occurring, and that anti-slavery protections risk being substantially weakened. These developments should be closely watched in Australia, particularly in light of the current review of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018.

One key reform being considered by the Australian review is the establishment of an independent anti-slavery commissioner. This position has existed in the UK since 2015 and was filled by Dame Sara Thornton until 30 April. For the past nine months it has been vacant.

The UK position was initially advertised in December 2021, with final interviews on 14 April 2022. Two candidates were shortlisted and for most of last year, the government simply maintained that a final decision was under consideration. However, earlier this month it was announced that a new recruitment process was being commenced, further delaying this critical appointment.

This is worrying for several key reasons. The UK’s modern slavery act states that an independent anti-slavery commissioner must be appointed. By failing to do so, the British government is in breach of its own anti-slavery laws.

While the office of the commissioner continues to operate, it does so on a reduced basis and it has been made clear that until a new commissioner is appointed the remaining staff ‘will have no remit to provide views or take on or contribute to new work’. Failing to appoint someone to such a key role not only undermines the commissioner’s important work, but also sends a terrible signal to the rest of the world about the priority the UK gives this critical human rights issue.

A key function of the commissioner is to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery offences, and the identification of modern slavery victims. Given these functions, the office is being left vacant at a critical time.

We are currently seeing increasing numbers of victims identified in the UK. There were 4,586 potential victims of modern slavery referred to the Home Office between July and September 2022, the highest number of referrals on record. This suggests it’s more important than ever to strengthen the commitment to combating modern slavery, and to embed a victim-centred approach.

The UK government is planning significant legal reforms, with a new modern slavery bill announced in the queen’s speech to parliament in May. The failure to appoint a commissioner risks limiting the scrutiny that will be applied to any such reform measures.

The stated purpose of the bill is to strengthen protection and support for victims and to increase company accountability in terms of supply chains. Reforms to strengthen the existing legal framework would be welcome. However, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak adopted a different focus when he told parliament the reforms would ‘remove the gold-plating in our modern slavery system’. He highlighted that new provisions would reduce the ‘recovery and reflection’ period for potential victims and significantly raise the threshold that must be met for a person to be considered a victim of modern slavery. This has led to warnings from former prime minister Theresa May about the risks of diminishing protections for victims of modern slavery.

By not appointing the commissioner before these reforms are introduced, the UK government risks the perception that it is deliberately trying to reduce scrutiny and avoid criticism. Anti-Slavery International says the delays create ‘a vacuum of independent oversight at a time when it is critically needed’.

When Sunak promised to ‘remove the gold plating’ he reflected a recent shift in the UK’s language on slavery. Over the past year it has increasingly spoken about slavery as an immigration issue and alleged widespread fraud and abuse within the system set up to deal with it.

In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she was ‘immensely proud of the UK’s global leadership in protecting genuine victims’ but that ‘the hard truth is that our modern slavery laws are being abused by people gaming the system’. These attacks on the credibility of modern slavery victims have become a recurring theme, with government ministers writing about the need to ‘limit the impact of modern slavery laws’, issuing press releases claiming that safeguards were being ‘rampantly abused’ by fake victims who were ‘clogging up’ the modern slavery system, and informing parliament that ‘our modern slavery laws are being abused by illegitimate claimants’ who are ‘taking advantage of the generosity of the British people’.

The claims that modern slavery protections are being routinely abused and the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric have both been publicly criticised by United Nations experts. In a statement on 19 December, the UN experts urged public officials ‘to refrain from inflammatory and spurious rhetoric that delegitimises survivors of slavery and human trafficking and their legal representatives’. They further criticised ‘misleading statements that exaggerate the level of fraud and abuse in the system’ and stated that ‘there is little evidence to support these claims and generalising them is dangerous and regressive’.

There has been further criticism of these claims by the UK Office for Statistics Regulation, which investigated concerns about the government’s use of data on modern slavery and reached the conclusion that the statistics relied on by the government ‘do not support the claims that people are “gaming” the modern slavery system’.

The reframing of modern slavery as an immigration issue can also be seen in its recent recategorisation within the Home Office, with formal responsibility being shifted from the minister for safeguarding to the immigration minister. Precisely the opposite has occurred in Australia, with machinery of government changes in July 2022 resulting in lead responsibility for modern slavery being shifted from the Department of Home Affairs to the Attorney-General’s Department.

Although there are important connectors linking the two, modern slavery is not primarily an immigration issue. In fact, 23% of all potential victims referred to the Home Office from 1 July to 30 September 2022 were UK nationals, with this figure rising to 44% of children who were referred. Re-framing modern slavery as an immigration issue risks ignoring these victims altogether, and could make others less likely to seek help due to fear that doing so may risk immigration detention or deportation.

The situation in the UK is concerning, both in terms of the impact that diminishing protections will have on victims and the signal it sends to the rest of the world. If we are to have any chance of eradicating modern slavery we need countries to strengthen their anti-slavery frameworks, not weaken them.

The UK developments contain important lessons for Australia. They are a timely reminder that the introduction of national laws is only the first step in building an effective modern slavery response. They also reinforce the critical importance of placing victims and survivors at the centre of modern slavery responses, and the critical role played by oversight mechanisms (such as an independent anti-slavery commissioner) in providing scrutiny and accountability.

Australia’s statutory review is a welcome opportunity to strengthen our anti-slavery framework, but the UK situation provides an important reminder that an effective response is always a work in progress and requires a constant renewal of commitment.