Whistleblowing and Modern Slavery in the context of Employment Law

The UK risks falling behind the majority of European countries in protecting employees who report concerns about unlawful practices, including criminal offences.

Since 2015 the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) has required commercial organisations carrying on business in the UK with an annual turnover of more than £36m to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement. The effectiveness of any statement in combatting modern slavery however is likely to be limited if no proactive steps are taken by organisations to raise awareness within their workforce of modern slavery and how concerns can be raised.

The three types of criminal offences created by the MSA, namely slavery, forced labour and human trafficking (including aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring human trafficking) don’t fall within the standard HR training and handbook toolkit. It is more likely that workers will be aware of circumstances identifying potential offences within the commercial supply chain than anyone else in the organisation. However without assurances that they will be protected from any detriment if they raise concerns silence will prevail and modern slavery risks will not be addressed beyond the mandatory MSA annual statement.

Unlike the statutory requirement to publish a MSA statement there is no such requirement to make available a whistleblowing statement to the workforce. Employers are required to provide a mechanism to raise grievances but  this is usually designed to enable concerns to be raised by workers about concerns about their work conditions and impacts on them personally. Creating an environment where workers feel confident to raise concerns that don’t directly impact them but allow them to disclose information about wider issues that are in the public interest requires a focus on formal whistleblowing procedures.

The UK risks falling behind the majority of European countries in protecting employees who report concerns about unlawful practices, including criminal offences. The EU Whistleblowing Directive has not only provided greater protections for whistleblowers in EU countries but has also extended the scope of the protections to job applicants and former employees. Although the EU Directive restricts protections to the reporting of wrongdoing related to EU law, and which therefore would exclude the MSA, there has been encouragement for national legislators to extend the scope to their respective domestic legislation.

There are clear organisational benefits to providing modern slavery whistleblowers with a safe and free from detriment reporting system for modern slavery supply chain disclosures. Risks are managed at an early stage, internal and external reputational damage can be managed and where criminal offences have occurred the relevant reporting can take place promptly. Most importantly vital information is available to enable investigations to take place into labour arrangements and where necessary to prevent further exploitation of vulnerable individuals.

About the authors

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Rebecca Thornley-Gibson


Specialist in contract and policy frameworks, employee relations, employment tribunal litigation and senior executive terms and exits.

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