Slavery is often thought of as a horror that has been consigned to history after the abolition of slavery in the UK in 1833 and the US in 1865. Sadly, however, this is not the case.

It is currently estimated that there are around 50 million enslaved people worldwide - more than during the transatlantic slave trade - a quarter of which are thought to be children. The UK government estimates there are around 10,000 enslaved people in the UK, but anti-slavery experts put the figure at above 130,000.

In 2015, former Prime Minister Theresa May published the Modern Slavery Act in an effort to tackle modern slavery in the UK and in UK companies that operate around the world. Part of this act decreed that certain organisations needed to publish modern slavery statements to affirm their commitment to abolishing slavery in all its forms.

So, with world anti-slavery day coming up on Oct 18th, we wanted to take a look at modern slavery statements, what they are, who needs to publish them, and how they help the modern anti-slavery cause.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 states that certain commercial organisations must publish annual statements that outline the steps they take to prevent slavery in their supply chains and throughout their business. Modern slavery statements encourage businesses to tackle forced labour and human trafficking at every production level.

Modern slavery can take many forms. The US state defines it as "the act of recruiting, harbouring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labour or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion."

Slavery can be difficult to notice. It can occur within families, behind closed doors, or even in plain sight without anyone ever realising it.

People can become trapped in slavery because they have been tricked or forced into it. They may have been pushed into taking a risky decision in order to provide for their family or simply to ensure they have enough to eat. Slavery is often a result of extreme poverty and a lack of sufficient laws and regulations protecting struggling individuals.

Some of the most common types are modern slavery are:

  • Human trafficking. This involves the use of violence or coercion in order to transport or recruit people for exploitative purposes such as forced sex work, marriage, criminality, or organ removal.
  • Forced labour. This refers to any work or services people are forced to do against their will.
  • Bonded labour. This is the most widespread form of slavery. It is when people trapped in poverty borrow money and are then made to work to pay the debts off. They have no control over their employment conditions and can spend the rest of their lives working to pay off their debts.
  • Child slavery. This is when children are exploited for other people's personal or commercial gain.
  • Forced marriage. This is when a person is married against their will. Forced marriage also includes child marriage.
  • Domestic servitude. Domestic work can be legitimate and often is. However, the working conditions of domestic labour are such that the workers are often open to exploitation.

Slavery exists all over the world. There are parts of the world where certain types of slavery are more common than others, and there are also areas with a disproportionate number of enslaved people.

For example, India is estimated to have nearly 20 million enslaved people, most of whom are in bonded labour. Many of these people work for organisations that have connections (either directly or indirectly) to companies that operate in the UK, the US, and other Western nations, making them complicit in enslavement.

The UK also has enslaved people working in bonded labour conditions, forced labour, sex work, and people who have been illegally trafficked.

Slavery may be better hidden in the modern world than it once was, but it still exists and is as big an issue as it ever has been.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act is an act that was brought in by the UK parliament under the leadership of Theresa May. It was designed to help combat modern slavery and consolidate existing anti-slavery and trafficking laws.

Amongst several measures, the act introduced new civil orders that allowed courts to place restrictions on those convicted of modern slavery offences, established an independent anti-slavery commissioner, and enabled the provision of child trafficking advocates.

However, while the act was welcomed by many, anti-slavery campaigners argued that the bill did not include any measures to help counter the use of slave labour abroad. Many businesses in the UK have supply chain connections that link them to factories and producers abroad that engage in illegal employment practices.

Anti-slavery campaigners wanted to ensure that big businesses are forced to publicise their efforts to stop suppliers' use of slave labour. For example, high-street clothing stores that use suppliers that employ children or other labourers in exploitative conditions.

The campaigners were successful, and from October 2015, businesses of a certain size were mandated to publish their efforts to combat slavery in an annual modern slavery statement.

Commercial organisations are legally obliged to publish an annual modern slavery statement if each of the following applies:

  • It is a corporate body or a partnership.
  • It operates, or partially operates, in the UK.
  • It supplies goods or services.
  • It has an annual turnover of £36 million or more. ‘Total turnover’ means the turnover of the organisation and its subsidiary undertakings (including those operating wholly outside the UK).

Organisations are responsible for determining whether or not they fall into each of these stipulations, and legal advice can be sought to advise them.

If an overseas organisation has a business presence in the UK and meets the other criteria, it must publish an annual modern slavery statement.

A business presence in the UK includes:

  • being registered at the UK Companies House
  • having offices in the UK
  • receiving income in the UK
  • having a visible UK business presence, such as a UK website

Similarly, if a UK company operates overseas but is registered in the UK, it must also publish an annual modern slavery statement.

Charities are legally obliged to publish an annual modern slavery statement if they meet the criteria.

Calculating the turnover of a charity can be complex. Income received from the provision of goods and services should be included, but donations and grants where the donor receives service or benefit should not.

A modern slavery statement should describe all the steps an organisation has taken over the course of the financial year to help combat modern slavery risks in the supply chain and within the business itself.

Even if an organisation has taken no steps to combat modern slavery, it must still publish a statement that explains this.

The Home Office recommends that every modern slavery statement includes the following:

  • An outline of the organisation's structure and how that links to its supply chains
  • Policies implemented concerning slavery and human trafficking
  • Due diligence processes
  • Risk assessment and management
  • Key performance indicators to measure the effectiveness of steps being taken
  • Training on modern slavery and trafficking

A modern slavery statement should also outline progress and developments from previous years. This should include the following:

  • Disclosing any information about modern slavery risks that have been identified and what actions have been taken to counter them.
  • An evaluation of the risks and then targeting actions in response to areas where they will have the most impact.
  • An outline of year-on-year progress that has been made by addressing those risks and how that has improved the outcomes for workers in your business and supply chain.

To meet the minimum legal requirements of a modern slavery statement, every organisation must:

  • Publish and update its modern slavery statement on an annual basis.
  • Publish its modern slavery statement on its UK website.
  • Get approval for its modern slavery statement from the board of directors.
  • Get its modern slavery statement signed off by a director.

As well as on its website, organisations can also publish their modern slavery statement on the UK government's modern slavery statement registry.

This not only makes it easier for individuals to access and view the statements, but it also means that organisations can share the steps they have taken with other bodies and pool their ideas on how to clamp down and eliminate modern slavery.

You may feel powerless in the face of modern slavery, but there is plenty we all can do. Here are just a few of them:

  • Learn as much as possible. Knowledge is power, and understanding the complexity of modern slavery will help you to realise how malleable and pervasive it is. It will also alert you to certain industries and practices that you should be wary of.
  • Spot the signs. Employees being silent or not making eye contact could be red flags. Of course, they could also be harmless, but being open to the signs is an important step to challenging slavery. You can take a quiz that helps you to recognise some of the tell-tale signs of slavery.
  • Use your consumer power. If you find out that a business uses suppliers that enslave people, stop buying from them! You can also research modern slavery statements to find out whether or not certain companies are doing enough in the effort to tackle modern slavery. If they aren't, consider boycotting their products.
  • Spread the word. Whatever you learn and discover, be sure to pass on your knowledge to others. Education is the best way to take on issues such as modern slavery, so share your discoveries with everyone you can.

Unfortunately, slavery is as common today as it ever has been. The difference is now it is no longer in the open as it once was, making it even harder to challenge. Modern slavery occurs worldwide, and many UK companies purchase supplies from producers who engage in enslavement practices. Modern slavery statements are a small step in the right direction to help combat this.

World anti-slavery day is on October 18th. It is a day to raise awareness around human trafficking, forced labour, forced marriage, and all other forms of modern slavery. Why not look into some of the companies you regularly buy from this year? Read their modern slavery statements and find out if they are doing enough to challenge one of the world's great evils. If they aren't, write to them and let them know your feelings. It may not seem like a lot, but collective small gestures come together to make statements.