Resources minister Therese Coffey is liaising with the Home Office over the problem of forced labour in the UK waste sector.
The issue emerged at a recent Environment Audit Committee (EAC) meeting, which examined Defra’s resources and waste strategy.
Environment secretary Michael Gove was asked by committee member and Labour MP Kerry McCarthy why modern slavery had not been mentioned in the strategy’s section on organised waste crime.
She pointed to statistics, first revealed by MRW, that more than two-thirds of modern slavery cases dealt with by the Hope for Justice charity involve a victim being placed at a waste or recycling facility at some point during their ordeal.
McCarthy said: “I think that [issue] ought to be in there, and I just wondered if it was something that hadn’t been discussed.”
Gove replied: “It’s a very fair point, and one of the reasons we want to think about creating a joint waste crime unit is because waste crime has links with organised crime, has links with modern slavery, has links with a number of other unattractive phenomena.
“Making sure we look at it holistically is important, making sure the Environment Agency has the resources and powers is important. Making sure best practice among police forces is more widely shared is critical.
“Therese [Coffey] has been talking to [security minister] Ben Wallace at the Home Office about making sure that we can do better in this area.”
A Home Office spokesperson told MRW: “The Government is committed to tackling the abhorrent crime of modern slavery, which is why last year we gave the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority new powers to investigate serious cases of labour exploitation across the entire economy, including in the recycling industry.
“The Government has commissioned an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Review will identify where the legislation is working well, how implementation can be improved and whether specific areas of the Act need to be strengthened, including transparency in supply chains.”
In October it was revealed more than 100 Environment Agency waste enforcement officers had been fitted with body-worn cameras and received training from the Hope for Justice to identify labour exploitation during waste site inspections.
Viridor and Biffa have signed up to the Slave-Free Alliance, a business arm of Hope for Justice that helps businesses identify and tackle forced labour.
EAC chair Mary Creagh has also written to Cabinet Office minister David Lidington after “troubling reports” of modern day slavery in the UK public sector supply chain.
She pointed to allegations that factory workers producing rubber gloves for the NHS in Malaysia were subjected forced labour, forced overtime, debt bondage, withheld wages and passport confiscation.
She asked what action has the Cabinet Office taken to ensure that companies bidding for public contracts are compliant with the Modern Slavery Act, including:
- What action has the Cabinet Office taken to ensure that companies bidding for public contracts are compliant with the Modern Slavery Act?
- What discussions have taken place with the Home Office about formally extending the provisions of that Act to public procurement?
- Is the Government aware of any other incidents of labour exploitation in UK public sector supply chains?