Open and Transparent Quality Mark 2016/17 and 2017/18

We can all do our bit to end exploitation

Provenance has been a buzzword around what we consume for a long time now. Our society is well versed in the condition that the chicken we might eat on a Sunday has been reared. Whether it is corn-fed, given the freedom to roam or brought up on an organic diet – the label lets shoppers make an informed choice.

Unfortunately though the conditions of those who work to supply our goods are less well understood.

From fast fashion to car washes and construction sites, the evidence shows that all too often some companies are putting profit margin before the welfare of the people their businesses rely on.

In too many cases vulnerable people are made slaves by coercive bosses who might control them by creating debts that their ‘employees’ must work to repay. Victims of modern slavery often don’t speak English and are afraid of the authorities, perhaps because they are here illegally.

Often they won’t even recognise the fact that they are victims of crime.

The 29 Vietnamese people found in a windowless van on the M5 in April might not have felt fortunate when Devon and Cornwall Police officers opened the back of the vehicle, but they were the lucky ones.

As we discovered last week, when 39 migrants were found frozen to death in a container lorry in Essex, the fate suffered by some is far worse.

This terrible trade in human beings is created by exploitative people smugglers who give little heed to the welfare of those who pay them handsomely and promise a better life. This illegal industry is fuelled by people who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the law and human rights if it means a larger profit margin, and ultimately by unwitting consumers who pay for these products.

As the case at Newlyn proves here in the South West we are far from immune from people smuggling cases and modern slavery is in our midst. Prosecutions in our force area have uncovered modern slavery cases in the sex trade, at car washes and in agriculture.

Those who exploit people in this way are also giving themselves an unfair advantage over those who play by the rules. Fortunately responsible companies from fashion retailers to farmers are keen to distance themselves from those who exploit migrants and other vulnerable people.

And in the South West we have been leading the way. I am proud of the fact that we have overseen the establishment of the national Modern Slavery Police Transformation Unit in Exmouth with £8.5m worth of Government funding. Overseen by our own Chief Constable, Shaun Sawyer, who is the anti-slavery lead for the National Police Chiefs Council, it has trained hundreds of police officers from around the country in how to spot victims, prosecute offenders and prevent modern slavery from entering their supply chains in the first place.

Homeless people and rough sleepers are particularly vulnerable to this form of exploitation. The unit and my office have organised four free training events in Plymouth, Exeter, Newquay and Torquay aimed at those engaging with homeless individuals to raise awareness of modern slavery.

I have also been working with Trading Standards South West on a Buy With Confidence scheme that reassures consumers that employees and others in the supply chain are not victims of modern slavery. Companies who want to sign up are provided with training on how to spot modern day slavery and then are assessed to ensure they are taking appropriate steps to eliminate it from their businesses.

I’d urge consumers to look out for the Buy With Confidence assurance mark on the goods and services they purchase. That way they can be sure that their hard-earned pounds aren’t fuelling the sickening trade and exploitation of vulnerable people.

Ultimately partners hope that this scheme will be transferrable to other force areas.

We were all horrified by the fate of those poor people who died in truly horrific circumstances. Police, Border Force staff and local authorities are working tirelessly to protect modern slavery victims and to prevent the illegal trade in human beings, but the sad fact is that more tragedy is almost inevitable.

As members of the public we can do our bit by demanding reassurance that what we buy is not tainted by the misery and suffering modern slavery causes.