Modern slavery in the UK hospitality industry:  turning a blind eye to the risks is not an option – Part 1

Modern slavery in the UK hospitality industry: turning a blind eye to the risks is not an option – Part 1

Nishma Jethwa, Strategy Lead, Shiva Foundation
Rebecca Armstrong, Consultant, Responsible Tourism Matters

PART 1

In July 2015 Shamsul Arefin, owner of the Stewart Hotel in Appin, Argyll, was sentenced to three years imprisonment for trafficking workers from his native Bangladesh.  Lured by false promises of decent work and a better life, workers borrowed money to pay charges of between £15,000 and £30,000 for ‘sponsorship’ and visas and travelled to the UK. On arrival they were taken to the hotel in a remote part of Scotland where they were forced to live and work in appalling conditions. The workers were controlled, threatened and physically abused by Arefin, working for up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week to pay off their ‘debts’.

Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland described the case as ‘a clear case of modern day slavery’. However, even after Arefin was brought to justice, the workers’ nightmare continues as they live in fear for their families back home as they try to find work to pay off the extortionate interest owed to moneylenders, who are threatening them with violence if they return unable to pay. ‘Everything we had has been destroyed. The trafficker didn’t just take all our money. He took everything from me.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 made the UK only the second jurisdiction in the world to require companies to report on transparency in their supply chains. It bolsters the powers of enforcement agencies to fight slavery in all its modern manifestations, including human trafficking and forced labour. All forms of modern slavery present real risks for the hospitality industry – either directly within an organisation or its supply chain, or through the use of its premises by perpetrators to facilitate and carry out offences. Such risks are legal and commercial, as well as reputational and ethical.

The two key areas of importance – and risk – created by the 2015 legislation are (1) the obligation for larger companies to publish a modern slavery statement; and (2) the possibility of criminal and / or civil liability for slavery offences.

The obligation to publish a modern slavery statement

A UK business turning over more than £36 million a year must publish a Modern Slavery Act Statement on its website every year, approved at board level or equivalent. The statement must set out – as a bare minimum – either: (i) the steps the company has taken during that year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains, and in any part of its own business; or (ii) a statement that no such steps have been taken. 

The principal risks are ethical and reputational, with businesses’ approach – or lack of one – to slavery in their operations and supply chains being publicly available to consumers, the media, competitors, investors, shareholders and the wider public. Smaller companies exempt from the Act should also expect to face greater scrutiny as part of the supply chain of larger firms that are obliged to report.

Ought a company to have known? The risk of civil or criminal liability

A company risks being guilty of offences including slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour and human trafficking if it knows, or ought to know, that they are occurring in its business or supply chain. Such serious consequences underline the need to approach the publication of MSA statements ‘with the gravitas they clearly deserve, state the steps that have actually been taken to address modern slavery, and not overreach or exaggerate the organisation’s approach to the issue.  Companies ignore evidence of slavery, or clues to it in their supply chain, at their peril. 

In two recent UK legal cases, trafficked workers were found to have worked within the supply chain of major retailers: a Kent-based producer for “Happy Eggs” was successfully sued for forcing trafficked men to work in degrading and inhuman conditions as chicken catchers; while gangmasters were convicted of supplying UK factories run by KozeeSleep and its subsidiary Layzee Sleep with slave labour – despite the fact that KozeeSleep had been required to adhere to policies on ethical trading and been subject to supply chain auditing.

In both cases, the trafficked workers were not that far removed in the supply chain from UK household names: Asda, Morrisons and Sainsburys sell Happy Eggs while KozeeSleep supplied companies such as Next, John Lewis and Dunelm. Substitute KozeeSleep or Happy Eggs for a cleaning agency and one of the retailers for a major hotel brand, and the risks for the hospitality industry become more tangible.

This is a very real issue not only for ‘rogue’ establishments like the Stewart Hotel, but for large corporations too. If slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour comes to light in a company’s supply chain, ought it to have known? If so, civil or criminal liability – with serious consequences – is a genuine risk. This is critical for the hospitality industry, where outsourcing is common and those working in hotels are often far removed in the supply chain from those running them.

Supply chains are not the only area of risk for the industry. Hotel rooms can be used as a location for sexual exploitation or as halfway houses for traffickers moving their victims between locations. The anonymity and privacy service-element of the industry makes it an easy target. In America, there were 1,434 cases of human trafficking in hotels reported between 2007 and 2015, making hotels the third most popular location for sex-trafficking. In the UK, the NCA estimates that 4% of sexual exploitation happens in hotels. However, many cases go unreported and the NCA acknowledges that the real figures are likely to be much higher and that of those reported, the location is often undisclosed/unknown, so even of the reports, it’s probably safe to assume, the amount is more than 4%.

Recruitment processes also pose a significant threat. With nearly 25% of staff working in the UK hospitality industry coming from overseas, recruitment methods are often convoluted and multi-tiered. Hotels regularly subcontract recruitment to agencies, who in turn may use other recruiters. Often hotel management is totally unaware of their staff’s terms of employment because their due diligence process only extends as far as the first tier of the recruitment process, which to them, appears reputable. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that staff recruited from overseas may lack the necessary language skills to voice their worries. They may even be unaware that their treatment is illegal. High staff turnover can also increase the dangers for hotel workers. The brevity of contracts can mean staff don’t know their managers well enough to be comfortable voicing concerns or staff are not present long enough for their neglect to be recognised.

We would all like to think that we would never work with any organisation that exploits its workforce to the extent to which they may be regarded as slaves or involved in forced labour, but how many of us can actually say that we have checked the position? Or that relevant people in our businesses really know and understand the risks? Furthermore, how many companies in the travel and tourism industry actually have documented policies relating to modern slavery? At the very least, this legislation will mean that all businesses will need to look at their documented policies and processes around this topic, as well as considering whether we should be questioning our supply chain in more detail’.

‘Smart’ monitoring – is key. Anti-Slavery International explains that ‘the auditing mindset tends to be linear and mechanistic and may compartmentalise symptoms, preventing observers from seeing the whole complex picture which might together constitute forced labour’. For example, often companies report ‘lesser violations’ such as late wages payment or long working hours, without appreciating that these may be symptoms of forced labour.

In Part 2 of this blog we will explore how the risks can be mitigated, what the hotel industry is doing, and how to get involved.

There are many approaches to starting to tackle slavery in your business. If you’d like to collaborate with others in the industry, do not hesitate to get in touch at sian@shivafoundation.org. If you’d like assistance in reviewing these issues in your own business including assessing and addressing potential risks; working with your supply chain; and staff awareness and training, feel free to contact responsibletourismmatters@gmail.com.

This blog is partly based on an article originally published in Progress in Responsible Tourism Vol 5(1) November 2016 available at http://www.goodfellowpublishers.com/free_files/filePiRT5(1).pdf


  1. Addleshaw Goddard (2016) Transparency in Supply Chains: The Modern Slavery Act 2015. Available at https://www.addleshawgoddard.com/globalassets/insights/retail-and-consumer/modern-slavery-act-transparency-in-supply-chains.pdf
  2. An estimated 110,000 sex slaves and labour slaves are exploited in hotels and restaurants every year in the EU: University of West London (2016) UWL leads the fight against modern day slavery in Europe. Available at http://www.uwl.ac.uk/news-events/news/uwl-leads-fight-against-modern-day-slavery-europe
  3. Addleshaw Goddard, 2016
  4. See comments by Paul Henty, reported in The Guardian, 28 October 2015 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/28/uk-companies-proof-no-links-slave-labour-supply-chain
  5. Hartley, B., Hatcher, C., Ford, R., Khoja, S. & Smith, R. (2016) Tackling Modern Slavery: Are you ready? Clyde & Co, available at http://www.clydeco.com/insight/article/tackling-modern-slavery-are-you-ready
  6. Quayle, M. (2016) Modern Slavery – Closer Than You Think? Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP for Lexology Available at http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=e28fea5f-032d-428b-974f-8484c4ba0ef8
  7. Cooper, A. (2015) Opinion: The Modern Slavery Act’s impact on the travel industry. Travel Weekly, 28 April 2015. Available at http://www.travelweekly.co.uk/articles/53985/opinion-the-modern-slavery-acts-impact-on-the-travel-industry
  8. Anti-Slavery International (undated) Monitoring forced labour. Available from https://www.antislavery.org/what-we-do/work-supply-chains/monitoring-forced-labour/