The Home Office has issued guidance to those businesses required under section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to publish an annual modern slavery statement on how these businesses should approach the issue of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guidance reminds businesses that they should continue to address the risk of labour exploitation as normal, while also considering how changes in supply and demand may pose increased risks, both within their internal operations and through the supply chain.
Permitted delay in publishing modern slavery statement
The government has stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic will not be seen as an excuse for businesses to ignore their modern slavery compliance obligations. Equally, the Home Office acknowledges that many businesses will be facing new and unique challenges during this period which may affect their ability to publish a modern slavery statement within the usual timeframes, due to reduced staff capacity for example. The normal timeframe to publish a statement is as soon as possible after, and in any event within six months of, the end of their financial year, but in the current climate businesses are permitted to delay publication of the statement by up to six months. However, businesses who choose to avail of this extension will need to provide a reason for the delay and report on action taken during this period in their statement.
Addressing modern slavery risks during the COVID-19 pandemic
Businesses should also consider the following areas which may be more vulnerable to modern slavery abuses while the pandemic is ongoing:
• Health and safety
Ensure that relevant local or national governmental COVID-19 policies are implemented throughout the supply chain. This may include putting in place social distancing measures, closing premises, or paying statutory sick pay.
• Engage with and support suppliers
Avoid late cancellation of orders and pay for goods or services previously requested wherever possible. Aside from causing potential contractual disputes, failure to pay for orders can put pressure on suppliers which may lead to workers not being paid or being forced to work longer hours.
• Modern slavery policies
Employees and workers must still be able to access relevant modern slavery or grievance policies and procedures (for example while on furlough or working remotely). Businesses should also ensure that processes are in place to enable workers to lodge a grievance during the pandemic, should it become necessary to do so.
Recruitment (in particular the use of outsourced recruitment agencies) should always be considered as a risk area for human trafficking and labour abuses. During the pandemic this risk may be higher due to an increase in demand for short term, low-skilled labour. Businesses should ensure that they are maintaining stringent checks during the recruitment process, and implement the same measures through supply chains.
The above is not an exhaustive list. Businesses should regularly review the situation and undertake risk assessments as appropriate.
If you have any questions regarding modern slavery compliance and COVID-19 or need any support, please do not hesitate to get in touch the contact details shown below. For more insights relating to COVID-19, please see the DWF COVID-19 Legal Insights Hub.