The fight against the scourge of modern slavery: Co-operating for a brighter future

Bright Future – which works with survivors of forced labour – is converting to the co-op model

“Human trafficking survivors have had their very lives stolen from them. Their most basic human right has been ripped from them: the ability to choose, to be free. The years the traffickers have stolen must be restored to them.” 

So began a conversation between Phill Clayton, head of development at City Hearts charity, and Paul Gerrard, campaigns director at the Co-op Group. That conversation led to the launch of Bright Future in 2017: a scheme to help integrate survivors of the modern slave trade into communities by giving them jobs. Now, in 2020, Bright Future has been established as a co-op. 

The beginnings

City Hearts was founded in 2005 to pursue the freedom and restoration of lives torn apart by modern slavery.

“Early one morning I had a visit from a group of five survivors of modern slavery who had moved on from a City Hearts safe house only the day before,” says Mr Clayton. “They told me they still needed help, they had letters they didn’t understand, they were getting phone calls they couldn’t answer, they couldn’t sleep, they were scared of their new accommodation. But the one need they all had was the need for a job. 

“They had come to the UK on the false promise of employment and had been exploited to work with little or no pay and forced to stay in horrible squalid conditions. Their vulnerability was their desire to work, to provide for their families. This basic need, this source of dignity and purpose had been violated, stolen from them. Now they were free, the one thing they wanted and needed above all was still a job. And I couldn’t help. 

“But then I thought, ‘What if…?’”

Mr Clayton’s conversation with the Co-op Group resulted in a partnership with City Hearts on a pilot scheme to help survivors of modern slavery into work. 

“This was where I began to experience the culture of a co-operative organisation,” he says. “The spirit of collaboration, of making things happen, of supporting ideas at the grass roots, of helping people to help people.”

With Alison Scowen, project manager at the Group, Mr Clayton began to create the process and procedure that enabled survivors to move from supported accommodation to work with the retailer. The system removed the barriers: it bypassed benefits, did not contain any tests, interviews, or long applications – and it worked. 

The next chapter

The next stage was to ask other businesses and charities to test Bright Future. In early 2018, 10 businesses – including Dixons Carphone, The Body Shop and Midcounties Co-op – became Bright Future business partners and pledged to provide employment for people rescued from enslavement. These businesses were soon joined by others – including the John Lewis Partnership. 

“It was at this point we realised that what we had created could help so many more people than we had dared to dream,” says Mr Clayton. 

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“We set ourselves the challenge of growing the partnership to involve 20 businesses and 20 charities within a year. We met our target. Businesses wanted to help make a difference in a person’s life and charities wanted to find survivors jobs that were stable, supported and had long-term prospects.” 

As feedback was collected, it emerged that “collaboration was king”, so the team began to bring the partnership together quarterly to share ideas and stories – and hear from those survivors who had been through the process, so all could learn and grow together. 

“CEOs sat next to support workers, and heads of CSR had coffee with charity middle managers; it was a unique and unprecedented opportunity for alliance across sectors and positions. It was a true collaboration,” says Mr Clayton.

“As we co-operated, lives were being changed – and not just those of the survivors. I remember one global sales director telling me that being involved in Bright Future is the most rewarding thing he has ever been a part of.”

Becoming a co-op

Bright Future’s success saw it grow too quickly for two organisations to drive and fund, so – through a series of external reviews and reports from anti-slavery experts – they sought guidance on scalability and sustainability. 

“The guidance was that the partnership needed to seek its own legal identity in order to be sustainable and to grow,” Mr Clayton says. “At the next gathering of partners, five charities and five businesses joined a steering group to begin exploring options and made recommendations on structure and budget.”

There were three options: create a business, a charity or a co-operative. 

“A business would have been simple to set up but in its essence didn’t reflect the heart of the work we were doing. A charity certainly reflected the heart but had more set up complications, and also charities on the steering group felt that the anti-slavery sector was overcrowded with existing and new charities filling ever smaller niches. 

“But when we came to the co-operative model of shared ownership, one member one vote, equality of members and the need for all to play a part in success, it was, in the words of one steering group member, ‘a no-brainer’.”

Sharing ideas, resources and expertise to help people was embedded in the Bright Future programme from the start, “so the very nature of a co-operative resonated with our journey and our operational values. The service we provide has benefits for the survivors, the charity and the business – and all are equally crucial to its ongoing success”.

At a partnership summit in January 2020, the steering group presented its recommendation to Bright Future’s 28 charities and 21 businesses, who overwhelmingly voted that the partnership should become a co-operative, with the businesses splitting the weight of the budget between them. 

“The steering group began working with Co-operatives UK to create the rules and structures that we needed,” says Mr Clayton. “This advice was invaluable.”

Nine partners signed up as founding members – including charities such as the Medaille Trust and Hull Homeless, as well as businesses involved from the start – and chose our interim board. The founding members were asked if they wanted to nominate someone from their organisations to be on the board. The interim Board comprises Alison Scowen from Co-op Group;
Simon Murray from Dixons Carphone; Andy York from Tulip; Red Godfrey-Sagoo from the Sophie Hayes Foundation; Pete Westall from Midcounties Co-op and Phill Clayton from City Hearts. 

“We have met twice so far and held a virtual summit. Our next big piece of work is transferring organisations from partnership to membership and seeking out survivors who have been through Bright Future to sit on the board to help shape its future for more survivors,” says Mr Clayton.

To date, Bright Future has 23 business partners and 37 referral partners – including East of England Co-op, Marshalls, Typhoo and 2 Sisters Food Group, and has seen the successful placement of 63 survivors into permanent employment.

“We are excited and expectant for what is yet to come,” My Clayton adds. “But we know that as long as we stay true to the dream that began the process we will never stop helping survivors to accelerate into a Bright Future.”