Picture: 123RF/ARTIT OUBKAEW
Picture: 123RF/ARTIT OUBKAEW

London Britain’s efforts to be the global leader in fighting modern slavery have been thwarted by a failure to replace its anti–slavery chief who resigned seven months ago citing government interference, two sources told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Kevin Hyland was appointed as the inaugural independent commissioner in 2014 as part of Britain’s landmark Modern Slavery Act, but he resigned in May, saying he had been frustrated by government meddling.

Hyland was widely hailed for helping to champion the world-first law and pushing the UN to adopt a target to end slavery by 2030 as part of the 17 global development goals adopted in 2015.

But the delay in replacing him has prevented the commissioner’s seven-staff office from driving forward Britain’s strategy, holding the government to account, and cementing the nation’s status as a world leader, according to the two sources.

“The office has been thwarted [by the delay] ... totally prevented from doing new work, taking the next steps on existing projects, and keeping up pressure on the government,” said a former staffer who worked under Hyland, requesting anonymity.

“Britain has lost its figurehead, and hamstrung advisers who are deeply embedded and knowledgeable on the issue.” 

The former staffer said the team had been urging London to provide better support to slavery victims and improve a legal requirement for big firms to report their anti-slavery measures, but such efforts have been put on hold with the post unfilled.

The Home Office (interior ministry) has advertised twice to replace Hyland — offering a three-year contract with a salary of up to £140,000 — according to the two sources who said they expected an appointment in the coming months. The Home Office was unable to respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Despite being hailed as a trailblazer in the global anti–slavery drive, Britain announced in July it would review its 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour, or help victims.

Britain is struggling to track progress in its fight against slavery as it does not know how much money it is spending, and lacks the data to understand the crime, a public spending watchdog and parliamentary committee have said in the past year.

At least 136,000 people are enslaved in Britain, according to the Global Slavery index by the Walk Free Foundation, a figure about 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate.

A second source familiar with the situation said the delay in replacing Hyland was ridiculous given that modern slavery continues as usual. “If there was political will, things would move quickly,” the source said on condition of anonymity.

The source said they hoped the review of the legislation would lead to recommendations about the independent nature of the commissioner and help the new chief keep a distance from the Home Office.

Questioned by parliament in October about the reasons for his resignation, Hyland said his independence had been heavily compromised by Home Office officials over issues ranging from allocation of budgets to delays recruiting staff to his team.

Hyland was not immediately available for further comment.

Britain-based charity Anti-Slavery International — the world's oldest human rights organisation — said the delay was concerning and added to the impression that the government was not keen on being held to account on its anti-slavery policy.

“And held to account it should be since there’s plenty to improve — from protecting the victims to bringing the traffickers to justice,” said spokesperson Jakub Sobik.

About 40-million people globally are estimated to be enslaved — mostly women and girls in forced labour and forced marriages — in a trade worth at least $150bn a year to traffickers, says the UN International Labour Organisation.

Reuters