Shan Saba: Agencies have vital role in ending slavery

Lorry drivers' working conditions have caused concern
Lorry drivers' working conditions have caused concern
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The words “modern slavery” should have no place in 21st century Britain – or, indeed, in any other country. It should, literally, be inconceivable.

But, to our shame, it does exist.

Prime Minister Theresa May hit the nail on the head when introducing the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 as Home Secretary. She said it is “the greatest human rights issue of our time”.

The full gravity of the situation was brought home to me recently when I completed the Stronger Together workshop which focused on tackling the issue. It was possibly the most emotional training I have experienced in my 17 years in the recruitment industry.

And it hit the headlines again this month with revelations that Eastern European lorry drivers moving goods for retail giant Ikea are being paid just £3 
an hour and are forced to sleep, eat and wash in their vehicles.

I now plan to champion the combating of this modern scourge in our own business, Brightwork, which can employ more than 2,000 temporary staff across Scotland at peak times. Other recruitment agencies should follow suit.

Because the sad fact is that recruitment agencies had the largest amount of forced labour on their payroll out of all business sectors in the UK in 2014, most of them unwittingly. But we have to ask: is ignorance really an excuse?

And can agencies really say that they remain unaware if, for example, a worker is being paid just £20 for working more than 60 hours – with the pay being controlled by a gangmaster who has a connection to the recruitment firm?

A very low price should set off alarm bells rather than fill anyone with the pleasure of negotiating a good deal. The Stronger Together group advises employers in all sectors that if they are offered cheap rates by an agency they must ask: why are they so cheap?

Recruitment agencies operate in a complex and highly regulated environment. From next Saturday the National Living Wage for over-24-year-olds will be £7.50 an hour. Once National Insurance, holiday pay, the apprentice levy and pension costs are added, the total wage cost is £9.05.

Agencies have to cover the costs of their overheads, sickness pay, holidays and maternity pay and have to ensure their staff who are knowledgeable and up-to-date with legislation concerning the right to work and health and safety. They also, incidentally, have to make a profit to ensure they pay their own staff a living wage.

But while an agency may operate on low margins, that does not provide an excuse not to question the supply chain. The reputational issues associated with the use of forced labour are huge. Every major retailer is funding the Stronger Together movement and the construction industry is about to roll it out too.

The role that recruitment agencies can play in eradicating this human misery fuelled by greed is vital. When presented with cheap rates, they can ask themselves what corners have been cut to keep the cost so low.

They can ensure regulatory compliance, co-operate with UK border checks and ensure that all staff are trained and aware of how to identify, deal with and report any signs of forced labour.

It is a fair to ask labour providers about what processes they have in place, how much the workers are paid and how they work with the UK Borders Agency. They can visit their offices, audit their records and speak to the temporary workers who are on the site.

The ethics of labour suppliers are a legitimate concern for recruitment agencies. If they don’t take them into account, the Modern Slavery Act could put them in the dock.

Shan Saba is Business Development Director at Brightwork, the Scottish recruitment specialist