The modern slavery problem in resource and waste management

modern slavery

Sophie Fryer, Senior Consultant, human rights and social performance, at ERM, discusses the problem of modern slavery in the resources and waste industry.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that the waste and resource industry has traditionally been a place where victims of human trafficking are exploited, but the sector is pulling together to put an end to the practice.

Modern slavery is commonly described as “hiding in plain sight”, something that hit home this year when British athlete Sir Mo Farah revealed that he is a survivor of human trafficking and modern slavery.

No one really knows how many victims of modern slavery there are in the UK today. Figures for 2021 show 12,727 people being referred to the government’s National Referral Mechanism but slavery experts put estimates at 100,000.

Whatever the true figure, it’s stunningly high – and there’s a person behind each number; someone who’s being threatened, exploited and controlled.

There’s a person behind each number; someone who’s being threatened, exploited and controlled.

The waste and resources industry is a high-risk sector – one that knows, from painful experience, that it’s not uncommon for businesses to be infiltrated by exploiters. In 2018, it was reported that two-thirds of modern slavery victims had been placed within the sector at some point during their period of exploitation.

It’s really positive then to see the sector mobilising to tackle the issue collaboratively – working together to understand the risks and areas of vulnerability, supporting each other to address common challenges, and learning from collective knowledge.

In 2019, the Indirect Procurement Human Rights (IPHR) forum established the IPHR Waste and Recycling Working Group, which I have had the pleasure to chair. It’s gone from strength to strength, and has successfully increased engagement on the subject within the sector.

Waste management companies, non-governmental organisations, retailers and government bodies have come together within the working group, showing genuine commitment to work collaboratively. In 2021, we launched a free-to-access Modern Slavery Toolkit to provide simple guidance for organisations on taking steps to protect workers and their business from exploitation.

It is, of course, easy to say a sector is “high risk” without understanding the reality for workers on the ground. Global events of the past two years have made already-vulnerable people more vulnerable. A cost-of-living crisis, changes to immigration laws, labour shortages, a global pandemic, and a war in Ukraine (resulting in more than six million refugees) add up to a pretty desperate situation and increased human-rights risks.

The working group wanted to hear directly from workers, to identify where there might be common risks. It also wanted to highlight areas for improvement, or where it might be able to work together to protect workers.

Global events of the past two years have made already-vulnerable people more vulnerable.

In July, eight waste-sector companies participated in a direct worker reporting project, for which 276 workers were surveyed anonymously. We’ll share the insights gained in a webinar in October to mark anti-slavery day, but responses confirm that there are workers at risk within the waste sector today.

A disappointing number don’t know what their rights are as a UK worker. Others said they didn’t feel able to leave their job or change employers, and, worryingly, some said they weren’t paid full wages, or didn’t have access to the bank account into which their wages were paid.

These are all scary things for an employer to see, but they are so important for us to uncover. I’d like to say a huge thank you and well done to the companies that took part. Highlighting these issues means we can look for ways to ensure checks are in place, that workers understand their rights and, ultimately, help prevent modern slavery. 

In October, we will also be launching a Modern Slavery Protocol for the sector, as a public pledge of commitment to tackling modern slavery. We’d encourage as many organisations in the sector as possible to sign up and join us. To coin a common phrase: Teamwork makes the dream work.

Biffa contacted Circular Online following this opinion’s publication and shared that the organisation is an “active partner” of the anti-slavery charity Ride For Freedom. Biffa also said they were a founding member of the Slave Free Alliance and work closely with Hope For Justice, the international anti-human trafficking charity.

Further Reading

  1. Biffa’s 2022 Modern Slavery statement
  2. Working towards a world without slavery. 
  3. Biffa’s 2019 modern slavery case: 8 things you need to know. 
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