Members of the Co-op Group were given an update on its campaign against modern slavery at a fringe event at this year’s AGM.
The Group has been monitoring its supply chains around the world to to ensure there is no forced labour – looking at 1.773 sites across 69 countries on six continents.
And under policy director Paul Gerrard, it has joined Bright Futures, a partnership with charity City Hearts which offers work placements to survivors of modern slavery, with the possibility of a job at the end of it.
It is estimated that modern slavery has between 10,000-13,000 potential victims in the UK, and 45 million around the world.
Kevin Hyland, the independent national anti-slavery commissioner, told the fringe meeting about the case of a British child taken into slavery, who spent nine years being sold and trafficked, with no intervention to save her.
“She says it was obvious what was happening,” said Mr Hyland. “She cannot believe what these people did to her – and she means not the traffickers, but the statutory agencies who ignored her.”
He said there was a need for institutional change, with more support for victims and more effective policing.
“The National Referral Mechanism has rescued so many people but it’s time for change,” he said. “The Department for Work and Pensions has looked at it and made recommendations about support for victims.
“Police need to change their approach; I was a police office for 30 years and when I look at what was done, I hang my head in shame.”
Thankfully, there are signs of change, added Mr Hyland, who noted the case of a police raid on a cannabis farm which saw people who had been forced into working there helped, rather than arrested.
“I want people who are free, who have no label, but are members of society,” he added. “We must all work to address this … I am pleased the Co-op is taking such a leading role in this.”
The Group’s work placement scheme is valuable, members were told, because it deals with the lack of support given to slavery survivors after they leave the referral system.
Anne Reid, from the Salvation Army, which became the government’s prime contractor for victims of slavery in 2011, said safe houses are operated around the country, where survivors stay an average of 93 days. After that time, the support runs out.
“We would ask for victims to be supported until they are ready to get on their lives,” she said, “until they are not victims or survivors but are members of a community.”
Phill Clayton, from City Hearts, the charity working with the Group on the work placement scheme, said the consequences of this lack of support can be grim.
“Three years ago I was sat in a safe house with a guy, asking him about the options after he leaves the National Referral Mechanism,” he told the fringe event. “You have to move on, the funding doesn’t last forever.”
The man had two options: he could either return to his home country, where his traffickers might find him, or stay and become homeless.
“He said to me, there’s a third option, give me my bus ticket and I will go back to my slavers and they can put me to work for £89 a week and accommodation – that is better.”
Horrified that a return to slavery was the man’s best option, Mr Clayton resolved to put a support system in place – which led to the work placement scheme with the Group.
He says another slavery survivor recently caught up with him in the street and thanked him after help through the Co-op programme helped him.
“What the Co-op are doing as a member of Bright Futures is providing a path into employment, without that you cannot survive. That’s amazing that the Co-op will continue do that, and expand that. Paul Gerrard and other members of the Co-op have worked tirelessly on this.”
He called on Group members to lobby the government to do more to help slavery survivors – and said they could also volunteer to help.
“One thing we need apart from an income is a meaningful community – friends and family. We have many opportunities for members to come and sit, stand and walk with people who are survivors.”
Lara Bundock, chief executive of anti-slavery charity Snowdrop, said schemes like Bright Futures were already bringing positive effects.
“As we moved people out of the referral scheme, we saw people become destitute, get into debt, fall into violent or exploitative relationships, fall into alcohol or drug problems.
“About four or five years ago I decided to put in support network – with outreach, counselling, house renovations, and we saw improved outcomes.
“We now have ladies who are attending university, studying for nursing, applying for compensation. There were cases of women being pursued by traffickers who were having their children victimised in their home countries. We’ve worked with the Red Cross to bring their children here.
“And people are getting paid jobs. One woman now working for the Co-op was about to be made homeless. She couldn’t speak English, had no legal representation, had been a slave all her life.
“Now she has a job and a home, is learning English, and has been working with the police who have arrested her trafficker. The trafficker had stolen family heirlooms from her and she has been reunited with those.”
Paul Gerrard, who heads the Group’s involvement in Bright Futures, said the scheme had also brought offers of help from the Co-op’s suppliers, and the task now was to lobby other businesses and the government to do more.
“The Co-op can only do so much,” he said. “The test of our success is what do other businesses do – other retailers, big construction firms? We’ll do everything we can, but our challenge is helping others do as they should.”
He added: “As co-operators, our ambition should be that the co-op sector is the most hostile to slavery.”