Higher Education Institutions and Modern Slavery

Date: 06/05/2020
Author: Laura Anne Hall
Company: Slave-Free Alliance

Marc Stanton, Director of Slave-Free Alliance, offers some insight into why the higher education sector should pay attention to the signs of modern day slavery, and how institutions, particularly Universities, can become vulnerable.

Although many humanities departments across the globe teaching the history of slavery profess that the practice was abolished throughout the British Empire with the introduction of The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, this is unfortunately far from the reality of the situation. Slavery became officially outlawed with the introduction of the act, but sadly, the practice very much survived, going underground in new illicit, covert forms enabling the continued exploitation of humans for the profit. Human traffickers became the new masters, plucking the vulnerable and the destitute from the streets, coercing them into becoming the modern day embodiment of those who were once shackled; forced into labour, sex work, domestic servitude and other exploitative positions.

For professional higher education institutions, modern slavery may feel like something that’s happening overseas, miles away, something abhorrent and barbaric that they will never encounter, but be assured; modern slavery is regrettably closer than you think. In Britain alone, there’s reported to be an estimated 130,000 people trapped in forced labour, which is a growing number. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 recognised this appalling practice has become common in business, and enforced the publication of a Modern Slavery Statement for organisations with a turnover above the threshold of 36 million. This has meant that many Universities have been encouraged towards transparency, publishing both their current challenges in the area and proposed solution.

Whilst you may feel certain that it is not affecting your organisation, modern slavery can easily infiltrate the supply chain of any establishment. The nature of Universities means that the procurement of a wide range of outsourced services is required. These services include some of the sectors that can be most vulnerable to the placement of victims via human traffickers, such as construction management, utilities, waste and recycling services. However, the risk is not limited to these sectors; there is a risk of modern day slavery in the purchasing of all products and services; the wider the supply chain, the higher the chance of it being penetrated by human traffickers.

To protect against modern slavery within the supply chain, it’s important for Universities to have stringent ethical sourcing policies in place, and robust supplier due diligence steps in their procurement strategy to safeguard against any malpractice. Gauging supplier understanding of the issue and creating benchmarks that must be met is a suggested way to protect your organisation and strengthen supply chain defences against modern slavery. It’s recommended to create a preferred supplier list, consisting only of organisations that have been thoroughly pre-screened to ensure ethical practice and anti-slavery compliance. This auditing exercise should include any existing suppliers who may not have been previously screened with these considerations, and reviews should be held on a periodic basis. There are various bodies set up to assist Universities in creating robust procurement practices such as North West Universities Purchasing Consortium and Advanced Procurement for Universities and Colleges.

The scale of the issue can become even more difficult for institutions that have multinational global campuses. Those with overseas facilities have a heightened risk to exposure to modern day slavery, particularly through employment of low skilled roles such as cleaners within international offices. This risk can become even more prevalent when working in high exposure locations such as Cambodia, Pakistan and many African countries. When on international ventures, such as teaching exchange projects and research schemes, educating staff to spot the signs through reliable, expert training and establishing a confidential reporting mechanism is recommended before any academics are deployed in these circumstances.

Recruitment is another link within the supply chain that is heavily targeted by human traffickers looking to place victims with unwitting institutions for their own advantage. Many Universities make use of outsourced recruitment agencies to supply them with staff for various roles. The risk this presents is amplified further when it comes to the recruitment of temporary, agency or contract workers through a third-party sourcing agent. Making sure that HR Policies and Procedures have a strong modern slavery prevention inflection, as well as implementing a dual employee verification process including secondary checking of worker documentation, such as their right to work in the UK, for any anomalies is strongly recommended, no matter how trusted the supplier. When appointing recruitment agents, the same robust supplier due diligence process should be adopted, with only reliable agencies aligned with University values and best practice standards selected, and regular reviews put in place to ensure continued compliance.

Universities cannot fight the escalating risk of modern slavery alone. Educational institutions uniting to discuss emerging issues and best practice can help to spread awareness of the issue and give industry specific insight into the best ways to build up defences. Opening a modern slavery discourse through internal focus groups, getting employees from all areas of the institution involved is a great way to enlighten staff, erase stereotypes of slavery and discuss progress on how the University approaches modern slavery can be extremely beneficial in establishing awareness and best practice on a cross-departmental level.

By joining a coalition such as Slave-Free Alliance, you can transcend beyond Modern Slavery Act compliance. Becoming a member means you’ll have access to all of the expert support you need to ensure that, alongside existing members such as The University of Manchester, your defences against modern day slavery are the strongest they can be. Let’s end slavery together. By taking proactive action you’ll also contribute to the worldwide fight against modern slavery, enhancing your CSR presence; all profits made by Slave-Free Alliance are reinvested into their parent charity Hope for Justice, supporting global charitable activities.

Contact: 0300 008 0044
www.slavefreealliance.org marc.stanton@slavefreealliance.org