London — Unlike big retailers, many companies supplying the government are unknown and do not face the same pressure to address the threat of slavery in their operations
Britain's pledge to tackle modern slavery in government supply chains could be hindered by the number of companies flouting its anti-slavery law and operating "below the radar" when delivering goods and services to public bodies, activists said on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech to parliament on Monday that the government would publish a transparency statement next year outlining steps taken to identify and prevent modern slavery in its own supply chains.
Britain's 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires firms whose turnover exceeds 36 million pounds ($48 million) to produce an annual statement detailing the actions they have taken to combat slavery in their operations, but does not include public bodies.
"This is a huge challenge," May said in a speech about her visit to Argentina for the G20 summit of world leaders.
"Last financial year the government spent 47 billion pounds on public procurement - demonstrating just how important this task is," she said, referring to the transparency statement.
Labour experts and campaigners welcomed the plan but said it would be a huge undertaking considering that many companies - including many government suppliers - are ignoring the law.
Just over half of the about 19,000 companies required to comply with the law have issued statements to date, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.
And 42 percent of the government's 100 top suppliers flouted the legislation last year, found a study published in March by business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell.
"Clearly, there is a huge amount of work ahead to resolve this and to ensure that the government lives up to its aim of tackling this human rights abuse," said Caroline Robinson director of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), a charity.
Unlike high-street brands and big retailers, many companies supplying the government are unknown to the public thus do not face the same pressure to address the threat of slavery in their operations, according to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).
"It is precisely in the most hidden places that the worst exploitation of workers is found," said Cindy Berman, head of modern slavery strategy at the ETI - a coalition of trade unions, companies and charities promoting workers' rights.
"That includes companies operating below the radar supplying goods and services to the government," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Along with the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, Britain in September announced a set of principles to help nations tackle modern-day slavery in global supply chains.
Britain in 2015 became the first country to enact a modern slavery law, yet the government in July announced a review amid criticism that it is not being used effectively to jail traffickers, help victims or drive firms to stop forced labour.
Australia last week passed the world's second such law to compel big business and public entities to disclose their anti-slavery efforts, and some activists say it is tougher on both the private and public sector than Britain's legislation.
Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro.