When I think about my identity as a citizen I think about the local area that I live in. When I first started thinking more deeply about modern slavery I was shocked to discover that it was happening everywhere but that so often it was invisible.
Local elections were recently held in my borough which made me curious about whether my council was doing anything about the issue of modern slavery and human trafficking. Like many other young people and students, I tend not to think much about what my council does. Although we do not pay taxes as students, I have come to realise that we can ask our councils to do better with taxpayers’ money. I was pleased to hear back quickly from Harrow Council when I contacted them about the issue of modern slavery and human trafficking in the borough. I was also happy to see that they had given me plenty of information on the matter and that they were already working with charities such as Hestia as well as taking leadership with the ECPAT project.
The more I learned, the more I realised that councils have a huge role to play in making local people aware of trafficking and Modern Slavery. They can also play an important role in making businesses aware that they should also think about their supply chains and hiring practices. The Modern Slavery Act in 2015 obliges businesses with an annual turnover of £36 million or more to make a statement during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any part of the business and in any of its supply chains – at any level. Most councils have enormous budgets because they are spending on local services like schools, road repairs, bin collections, libraries and lots of other things we may not notice. Harrow’s budget for the last financial year was £165 million, that’s a lot more £36 million!
Therefore, I think I ought to know that my council is not complicit in Modern Slavery. I want to know that when services are provided they are not being subcontracted in ways that mean workers are being exploited. I want building projects in my borough to use materials that are ethical, and not made using slave labour or child labour in other countries. I also want council employees to be aware of modern slavery so that if they come across it they can protect people in our boroughs. I am sure you want all these things too.
I believe that accountability is really important. Politicians make promises all the time that they do not always keep. When they keep them, it builds trust which is good for building a sense of citizenship and community. If we want people to participate in politics we need them to see that promises are being translated into actions, and particularly, that the most vulnerable amongst us are being protected. I do not think that we should expect less of our councils, which are supposed to serve people in our boroughs and are spending taxpayers’ money than we expect of businesses. We can hold businesses to account as a consumer by boycotting them, but we cannot do the same with our councils. We need them to take leadership for us.
We have already started taking action. We have sent questions to all 32 London boroughs, including the City of London. So far, we have received positive responses, many councils have let us know about their policies, guidelines and interest in further action like a voluntary statement about how they fight against modern slavery. However, some have not and so I ask myself: if they cannot respond to an email, how can we trust that they will shake up their own internal systems?
Some councils are taking leadership and I am excited that Rakhee from Croydon Council will be sharing her insider perspective on the matter with us this evening. As citizens and taxpayers, I think we should all be sure that our leaders are doing everything they can to make sure that they are not complicit to modern slavery. I encourage you to write to your councils or councillors all over the country. I hope that this campaign draws attention to how modern slavery can be fought against on a local level. It can only happen if we raise awareness and hold our leaders accountable to promises made tackling modern slavery – only then can we ensure modern slavery is a thing of the past.
This article was written by Sean Chou.