Why UNISON is signing the Anti-Slavery Charter

Today, UNISON added its name to the Anti-Slavery Charter. This isn’t something I thought my union would have to do in this day and age, given that slavery was officially abolished by our country in 1834. Yet slavery not only persists, it’s on the rise. It’s estimated that 10-13,000 people are enslaved across the UK which, according the National Crime Agency is just “the tip of the iceberg”.

The conditions for slavery to develop are many and varied. Vulnerable people are most often the targets for those who seek to make financial gain at the expense of others. Whereas previously victims were usually enslaved in private homes and brothels, that’s no longer the case. Increasingly, victims of slavery are appearing in the ‘formal economy’ including in the manufacturing, construction, food processing and care sectors.

Trade unions have a part to play in ensuring workers – especially in the formal economy where unions traditionally organise – do not fall victim to slavery. As has been pointed out by others, there are signs we can look out for in the workplace that could be an indicator that a co-worker has been coerced to work.

I was particularly pleased to see that Anti-Slavery International’s director, Aidan McQuade, equated the lack of freedom of association, an ILO core labour standard, with slavery. He said “unionised workforces cannot be enslaved”. As general secretary of the biggest union in the UK, I would, obviously, agree with Dr McQuade’s assertion.

There is a will in this country to eradicate slavery. The introduction of the Modern Slavery Act is welcome in helping to ensure that slavery is identified and addressed. UNISON welcomes this step, and has issued its own transparency in supply chains (TISC) statement to demonstrate the steps we have taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of our supply chains or in any part of our own business.

Identifying slavery is not enough to eradicate it: we must look at the conditions that allow this barbaric practice to take hold, and eradicate the abuses that cause the downward slide to slavery. Preventing workers from joining free and independent trade unions, whilst not a primary cause of slavery, contributes to an environment where it can appear. This is why the Anti-Slavery Charter includes the right to join a union as being a key factor in tackling the exploitation of workers. It is also why the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) has produced a Base Code that calls for all its members to respect the right of workers to freedom of association (the right to join a union) and collective bargaining.

When Theresa May as Home Secretary said in the foreword to the Practical Guide to TISC “it is certainly not acceptable for organisations to put profit above the welfare and wellbeing of its employees and those working on its behalf”. I absolutely agree. I hope that she agrees that one way of ensuring that is to protect workers and their fundament right to join a trade union of their choosing. That is why UNISON works with Anti-Slavery International – and why we are signing the Charter today.