Lifting the lid on modern slavery in the agri-food sector


Modern slavery is a growing threat, identified as a profitable criminal activity and a social justice issue. But are UK companies taking this threat seriously, particularly in the agrifood sector? BSI looks at the evidence and how standards can help protect vulnerable people from exploitation.

When considering integrity in the agrifood sector, focus is generally placed on the conditions food is grown in, how it’s fertilized, processed, and transported. But what about the people that harvest, process, and transport the food all along the supply chain?

The nature of work in the agrifood sector, where workers can be easily replaced, and which often relies on seasonal migrant labour recruited through agents, makes it especially high risk for workers to be exploited. It also means that farmers who rely heavily on these third party recruitment agencies to find workers can unwittingly employ modern day slaves.

These vulnerabilities are supported by visa mechanisms and supply chain structures that create power imbalances. Exploitation in agrifood work is widely spread, and in the most extreme cases that will mean people becoming modern day slaves. Migrant workers are vulnerable to falling victim to modern slavery, as they may not be fluent in the language of the country, or familiar with the country's worker's rights.

Modern slavery is usually invisible to consumers. Yet, it exists throughout the supply chain, from workers overseas in poorer countries to those in developed countries, including the UK. Coercion, violence, and threats prevent those enslaved from speaking out. Some of the conditions associated with modern slavery include low to no pay, poor working conditions, squalid accommodations, and identity documents being withheld. 

The UN has identified modern slavery as a growing problem, citing it as the second most profitable multi-national criminal activity after drug trafficking. Sixty-four percent of modern slavery victims are associated with a supply chain which begins with a grower or producer and ends with a finished product bought by consumers.

A new standard to tackle modern slavery

To address this threat and support the global-efforts to combat modern slavery, BSI published a British Standard, BS 25700: Organizational responses to modern slavery in 2022. This is a freely available standard to guide companies in building a more responsible and ethical supply chain, protecting individuals from exploitation.

One of the main voices behind the development of the standard was Dr. Alexander Trautrims, Professor of Supply Chain Management at Nottingham University Business School and Associate Director at the University of Nottingham's Rights Lab's. With years of experience in leading research projects on modern slavery in supply chain, he co-chaired the BSI Technical Committee that worked on the development of the standard.

Alexander commented: “As food companies attempt to compete, they’re often under pressure to keep costs as low as possible and rely on the supply of labour. In some cases, unscrupulous actors in the supply chain exploit workers for their own gain in locations where labour standards are unregulated or poorly enforced. Even well-known brands or retailers with otherwise well-run supply chains, struggle to address modern slavery effectively”.

In a report he co-authored with Andrew Phillips ‘Feeding a rich nation: Modern slavery reporting in UK agriculture’, they consider modern slavery to be not just be a human rights issue but”… “at the nexus of sustainability, human rights, environmental and business leadership issues.”

The report goes on to say modern slavery: “…inflicts damage in the unregulated and marginalised areas where it takes place, through for example, deforestation in the Amazon and in Africa, destruction of costal ecosystems, illegal mining and quarrying, and mercury poison of land.”

“It is an economic issue: the removal of people from a community into slavery eliminated their economic power as consumers, and their introduction into their communities impacts on local wages and the availability of work for others. Finally, and certainly in the UK, it is a business leadership issue, given the reputational risk of being associated with modern slavery and the risk of prosecution”.

The report looks in detail at how agricultural companies in the UK responded to the threat of modern slavery over two years (2017/2018) in the light of the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for companies to produce a statement of how they would eradicate it in their own operations and supply chain. They found that only 50% of companies had produced a modern slavery statement in 2017 and this had only increased to 67% a year later.

Furthermore, the quality of the majority of statements was low and the authors concluded that for many companies it was a ‘tick box’ exercise with no real engagement. “The inference is that the majority of companies either failed to engage or, having put out a statement, considered the job done,” said Alexander.

Modern slavery close to home

In the UK today the number of those working in slavery is difficult to determine because of its hidden nature, social stigma, disempowerment of victims, and a lax labour inspection regime. In 2023, Crimestoppers stated that modern slavery affects an estimated 13,000 people in the UK. With the police explaining that modern slavery victims are mainly found working in agriculture, construction, and the sex industry.

It is impossible to know the exact number of victims, but these figures might just be the tip of the iceberg. In 2023 alone, a total of 4,746 people were referred to the Home Office from January to March as potential victims of exploitation, a rise of more than a quarter compared with the same period the previous year.

It is this situation which drove the motivation for BSI to publish a standard to guide companies in understanding the risks that modern slavery poses, both to individuals and their own businesses, and how to take meaningful preventative action.

The aim of the standard is to help companies go beyond requirements to comply with modern slavery legislation and provide guidelines that help protect vulnerable people. The standard provides guidance on measures companies can take to protect workers from being exploited.

At EU level, in early 2022 the Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence, and it also issued a proposal for a regulation to prohibit products made by slave labour. Germany and Norway introduced supply chain due diligence legislation with named enforcement authorities.

“Modern slavery is a moral issue for our times and challenges the way we have traditionally operated supply chains,” said Alexander. “Companies are experiencing increasing pressure from consumers, investors, lawmakers, and buyers to ensure human rights in their supply chains are respected”.

Standards like BS25700 are developed with the utmost regard for people and planet, to alleviate the pressure and accelerate progress, combat global issues, and benefit all of society for a more sustainable world.

Download the free standard today.