The Government has published guidance for companies on addressing and reporting on modern slavery risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, businesses with a minimum global annual turnover of £36 million are required to (and smaller businesses are encouraged voluntarily to) publish an annual modern slavery statement setting out the steps they have taken to identify and address their modern slavery risks in their own organisations and in their supply chains. The guidance identifies certain risks which supply chains may become vulnerable to during the pandemic, and how businesses can deal with them.
Whilst there is no specific statutory deadline for publishing the statement, Government guidance has been that statements should be published, at most, within six months of the relevant business' year end. The COVID-19 guidance recognises that businesses may be delayed in publishing their annual statement or unable to take previously planned activities to combat modern slavery risks. However, the guidance makes clear that businesses are nonetheless obliged to continuing identifying and addressing modern slavery risks in their supply chains, and reporting on the actions they have taken, during the COVID-19 crisis. Businesses should use their next statement to show how they monitored risks during this period.
Accordingly, the guidance states that businesses which need to delay the publication of their modern slavery statement, due to COVID-19-related pressures, can do so by up to six months without penalty. However, any delay should be explained in the next statement. In fact, whilst the Modern Slavery Act provides for the possibility of an injunction being sought against a business that does not publish a statement, which may then be enforced through an unlimited fine for contempt of a court order, there are currently no specific penalties in the Act for non-compliance, which has been one of the criticisms levelled at it during recent reviews of the legislation.
New modern slavery risks triggered by COVID-19 include: the health and safety of workers; supporting suppliers, including paying for orders in production and avoiding order cancellations; maintaining any grievance procedures for employees; and maintaining rigorous checks during recruitment to ensure that vulnerable workers are not being exploited by third parties seeking to profit from heightened demand.
Businesses should remain mindful of any particularly vulnerable parts of their supply chain, and keep their Board of Directors updated on emerging or heightened risks.
This guidance follows the Government's publication of its own (and first) modern slavery statement on 26 March 2020, and the Government's ongoing review of the Modern Slavery Act and its requirements re supply chain transparency. The Government's consultation closed on 17 September 2019 and its response to the consultation responses is awaited.