Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
This issue—human rights abuses in the UK supply chain—is an extremely live one. Whether it is the children of the Colombian coalfields, abuse in the sweatshop economies in Bangladesh, the exploitation of the workers in India in relation to the blood bricks, or the migrant workers in Qatar working in construction in the most inhumane of conditions, and whether it is British American Tobacco, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Glencore or many other multinationals, it is essential that everyone works together within the supply chain authorities to eradicate violations of human rights, from one end of the chain to the other.
We have an absolute moral duty to tackle and stamp out legally the human rights abuses that we see on an almost daily basis. They take many forms. We see women forced into prostitution, and children, men and often entire families forced to work in agriculture, domestic work, factories or sweatshops producing goods for global supply chains. As I say, this abuse needs to be stamped out.
In recent years, the extent of human rights abuses in the overseas supply chains of UK companies has come to light in a way that has emphasised the urgency around tackling modern slavery. At this early stage of the debate, I want to place on the record my thanks to Unite the union for its outstanding work on such issues. Had it not been for Unite, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) and I would not have joined the fact-finding trip to the tobacco fields of North Carolina, which I will now discuss.
My hon. Friend and I were invited as part of a delegation to North Carolina by the American farm workers’ union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. We had the opportunity to witness at first hand some of the many human rights abuses endured by tobacco industry workers in the fields of America. We heard disturbing stories of what is essentially daily life for them—instances of child labour, sexual exploitation of women and human trafficking. It was a world away from what we would expect in a developed country and the so-called “land of the free”, which is one of the richest nations in the world.
The working conditions that we saw were absolutely atrocious, with unbelievably long hours of manual labour in unbearable heat; squalid living conditions, which mean workers have a lower quality of life than inmates in UK prisons; and employers showing a total disregard for basic health and safety regulations by not providing gloves to workers picking tobacco plants, so that their skin is exposed to the toxic nicotine, which meant that many of them develop green tobacco sickness, an affliction with symptoms including nausea, intense headaches, vomiting and insomnia.
We visited about five farms. We also met many people working in the tobacco fields; men, women and even children. I have to say that it was quite harrowing. We listened to the testimonies of many people who were working in the fields. I will take just a little time this morning to outline what some of these people had to say. They were workers who were being exploited in the tobacco fields.
There was Hector, aged 49, who was from Wilson county. He said:
“I had an accident and the farmer didn’t take responsibility. I don’t agree with that…they made me suffer there in the field. I was working the tobacco and a harvesting machine cut off part of my finger. The farmer told me that someone was going to take me”—
to the hospital—
“but the hours went by and I couldn’t tell if he was telling me straight and there I was with my finger bleeding all the while.”
We visited Hector where he lived and at that time his hand was bandaged but he still had not been seen by anyone, days after the accident. At the same time, he was not being paid any wages, even though the accident was because of the negligence of his employer in the tobacco field. Many people were scared to speak out, in case there was retaliation by their employer; that is a huge issue in many of the places that I have mentioned.
There was also Sandra, who is only 13 and from Wayne county. She said:
“I started working in tobacco when I was seven. I work in tobacco because I’m thinking of my future. I want to go to college. My parents have a hard time paying for high school…and I have younger brothers and sisters that want to go to college, too. It’s important for me to work to help my parents, but there are many problems.”
There was Lorenzo, who was 26 and from Nash county. He said:
“If you have a contract”—
commonly known as an H2A visa—
“they treat you differently, but for us they lower the weekly wage. There’s no bathroom and if there is, you can’t use them; you can’t even go in because they are so dirty, and they don’t clean them.”
He said that when the inspectors come around the employers
“bring the bathrooms”—
that is, the portable bathrooms—
“and clean, too, but the inspectors leave and nothing changes”.
So the employers change things when the inspectors arrive to make them look an awful lot better than the dismal situation that workers usually face.
We visited some of these camps and saw some of these toilets. Can you imagine the squalid conditions that these people are living in? I said that those conditions were worse than those in UK prisons. However, to say that is a bit of a nonsense; you would not keep hens on an allotment in places such as those where these human beings reside, seven days a week and 24 hours a day. They were ashamed of the conditions themselves. And to see the toilets, one after another without any privacy shields between them for example, not cleaned for months on end—what sort of way is that to treat ordinary human beings?
We spoke to Gloria, who was 23 and from Duplin county. She said:
“Women with children have it harder. We have no support. If you go out with the contractor, in every way you get treated better. If you go out with him, you’ll get a lot of hours in the good jobs and if you don’t, your pay will suffer. We have to take care of our children! All I ask is that women get treated equally as men in the fields.”
Just for clarification, when she said that women have to “go out” with the contractor, that is what she means—women must give the contractor sexual favours to ensure that they get equality in employment with the men in the tobacco fields. It is an absolute disgrace that that is continuing in what is, I must add, the land of milk and honey.
There was also Maria, who was 26 and from Greene county. She said:
“We get pesticides sprayed near us when we work and we don’t know what they are. This season—”
the 2014 season—
“I got sick from the chemicals and one day I was sick in the bathroom and the supervisor came and told me I had to get back to work. When I couldn’t, he told me he didn’t need me anymore and that was my last day working there.”
Those are a few of the testimonies we heard.
There was also the case, which has become well-known now in North Carolina, of a chap who was feeling pretty poorly after working in the 110° or 120° temperatures in the tobacco fields. The farmer said, “Well, you cannot leave: this is your job,” and sent him to sit under a tree in the shadows in the hope that he would recover. At the end of the day, everybody went home and did not realise that this chap had not come back to the camp with them. They were not too concerned, but as the days went on they realised that this chap had not come back and were slightly worried. So they decided to go back and look, following his traces from where he was in the tobacco field to the tree under which he was supposed to recover, only to find that his corpse was still sitting there, decomposed. Nobody had been to see whether he was recovering. That is why we raise these issues today.
Of course, a lack of regulation causes these poor conditions. Here we have a catalogue of atrocities that amounts to less of an American dream and more of an American nightmare. This is largely due to the lack of regulation in the tobacco farming industry. Labour standards are generally weaker in America. This, coupled with the inadequate resources provided at both state and federal level, means that it is near impossible to ensure that employment rights are enforced.
It is equally damaging that agricultural workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which denies them the fundamental right of the freedom of association. With no collective bargaining structures in place and with the precariousness of their employment, workers see no alternative to withstanding the appalling conditions and abusive treatment, particularly as many of them are undocumented workers, originally from central American countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, with the overwhelming majority hailing from Mexico.
FLOC, with its president Baldemar Velasquez, has for many years been playing a leading role in trying to get these abuses eradicated. It estimates that at least 20,000 tobacco farm workers are not unionised, in an industry where joining a union would be essential in providing the necessary protection in the workplace. With this in mind, it is of the utmost concern that, as workers in those tobacco fields supply companies such as British American Tobacco, many people in this country could be unwittingly supporting this form of modern slavery.
My hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) met representatives from BAT on 29 October, and although BAT expressed sympathy with the workers in question, it refused to be proactive in regulating its own practices, as confirmed in writing in its letter of 10 November 2014. BAT has also ignored calls for it to use its influence as an owner and customer of Reynolds American to urge that company to sign up to the Dunlop Commission, a mechanism already in place in America, which would give guarantees to tobacco farm workers on Reynolds American contract farms, a source of tobacco for BAT.
BAT was prepared to meet colleagues who had been on the delegation, and others, but there seems to be some difference in views about how that meeting concluded. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North believes that although BAT listened it would not be happy to do very much about using its influence, as I have suggested. BAT says that the meeting was quite helpful. Does the Minister think that this is the way that a modern company should operate, waiting for legislation to compel it to protect employment rights and the human rights of tobacco farm workers on contract farms in its US supply chain?
Urgency is needed to tackle this issue. Worryingly, stories such as those I have mentioned from North Carolina are not uncommon. The reality is that, over the last decade, current measures have failed to tackle modern slavery in our supply chains. We have seen first hand how the lack of regulation of the industry in America breeds worker exploitation, so the focus must be on imposing regulations on all companies throughout the world that feed into supply chains in Britain. Companies should have to report on their working conditions and those of their suppliers, to ensure that we have transparency in our supply chains and that we can help reduce the risk of modern slavery.
We should be focusing on this issue through the Modern Slavery Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. We need to look at procedures for the investigation and monitoring of modern slavery risks, both in UK organisations and their global supply chains; we need support and access to remedy for victims of forced labour and modern slavery; and we need to train staff and suppliers to draw on expertise and advice to remove confusion over lines of accountability with companies down the chain. We need greater clarity in lines of accountability of businesses of all sizes, which could be achieved through introducing minimum reporting standards, effective scrutiny bodies and enforced penalties. These functions should be monitored as part of the anti-slavery commissioner’s duties.
Like most hon. Members in this House, I welcome the vital role played by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in managing and mitigating risks of slavery in the food and agricultural sectors, but I urge its expansion to deal with other high-risk areas, such as fisheries, apparel, construction, cleaning, care and hospitality. All authorities responsible for inspection, monitoring and enforcement of labour standards should work proactively to identify abuses of labour standards and act effectively if modern slavery is found. Truly to tackle modern slavery, the Bill must address this.
Thousands of temporary workers in the UK fall between the cracks of labour inspection and regulation because they are not covered by the GLA. UK labour inspectorates should take proactive measures to ensure protection of workers from abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices. Companies should also seek to ensure that migrant workers do not pay a recruitment fee, including in their country of origin. These fees put them in debt bondage, which is a critical factor in forced labour and trafficking for labour exploitation.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister shares the view that I have wholeheartedly expressed here, which is that Britain should not tolerate human rights abuses in our overseas supply chains or indeed modern slavery in any form—a view shared by many of my hon. Friends in the House. Does the Minister agree with me that freedom of association agreements would make all the difference in improving the rights of employees of multinational companies? Will the Minister support the extension of the GLA and its use as a model for good industrial relations practices?
Greater scrutiny and regulation in our supply chains are long overdue. We need to take a stand on the world stage to show that Britain will not profit from exploitation. With this in mind and Britain’s industrial reputation at stake, I invite the Minister to say why the UK does not insist on proper legally binding corporate social responsibility reporting, and why we do not push harder for better regulation at the international level to hold multinational companies to account. I finish by saying that anyone who saw the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and I saw in the tobacco fields of North Carolina would be truly ashamed that the supply chain in the UK is contributing to modern-day slavery. Those individuals were treated like animals and worked like animals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this debate. He has eloquently spoken about what we saw in North Carolina, which was depressing. I put on record my thanks to president Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and his team of volunteers who work tirelessly every day to try to identify and expose what is happening in that part of America. I also put on record my thanks to the local communities, the Churches and the faith groups that we met in North Carolina. They told us clearly that they do not want British American Tobacco, Reynolds or any of these companies operating in their communities and treating people in the way that they do.
My hon. Friend mentioned the meeting that I and others had with BAT. We were offered all the empathy in the world, but nothing of substance to help people. We have multinational companies that are quite prepared to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in courts trying to defend themselves against having to give workers a say at the workplace so that they can lead a decent life, with respect. Those companies would rather pay fancy lawyers hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars to continue to treat their workers in the way that they do. From what we have seen, the situation is depressing.
Another company that is coming on to the radar for behaving in that way is the bus company National Express. It is well respected and well established in the UK, but when it goes abroad to America, the first thing it tries to do is indulge in union busting, which is a complete waste of people’s time. The most important thing from a British perspective is that the company has the contract to take kids in America to and from school. A number of safety concerns have been raised, and the last thing we want is a UK company being responsible for fatalities in America. Anyone who complains or highlights those safety issues suddenly finds themselves unemployed. National Express is a well-respected, well-established company, but when it goes abroad I am reminded of the television programme, “An Idiot Abroad”. That is exactly what it is. It behaves like an idiot and does nothing until such time as legislation forces it to, which is not a progressive way forward.
I will focus on the Blood Bricks campaign—it is a difficult name to say and I have been caught out a few times by mispronouncing it—and early-day motion 362. Union Solidarity International, working in partnership with Prayas, ActionAid and Thompsons solicitors, has developed an international campaign to highlight forced labour and child labour in the global brick construction sector. The Blood Bricks campaign focuses on India, where trade union organisations, non-governmental organisations and human rights campaigners have been organising, educating and mobilising thousands of workers to raise wages and access to public services and to combat child labour and sexual exploitation.
The issues of forced labour are not restricted to India. Recent case examples in Brazil and Qatar highlighted problems with the work on the infrastructure for the football World cups of 2014 and 2022. However, bonded labour, forced labour, child labour and infringements of domestic and international legislation are widespread in India. According to the International Labour Organisation, almost 21 million people across the world are victims of forced labour: 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys. Those who exact forced labour generate vast illegal profits. Domestic work, agriculture, construction, manufacturing and entertainment are among the sectors of most concern. Migrant workers and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to forced labour.
The early-day motion, which stands in my name and has a significant number of signatures, focuses on the workers who were faced with choosing which limb they wanted cut off when they tried to escape from bonded labour, as featured in a BBC story by Humphrey Hawksley only a few weeks ago. The USi has identified a company operating in the UK with ties to bonded labour. Those workers were said to have been working for Jai and Raj Group, a subcontractor of Indian engineering and construction giant Larsen and Toubro Ltd. In 2010, Renfrew firm Howden Group entered into a multimillion pound joint venture with L&T to manufacture equipment for power plants. The USi has written to Howden Group, alerting it to the allegations that have been passed to the Indian Government’s Ministry of Labour and Employment, but its response is completely inadequate. The Howden Group, despite being controlled by L&T on this site—a fact it acknowledges—says we should raise our complaints directly with Larsen and Toubro.
The workers, who are from the state of Uttar Pradesh, were said to have been lured to work on a construction site in Delhi by an advance of 1,000 rupees, which is approximately £10.26, and promised wages of 12,000 rupees, which is £123.08 a month. We believe that the allegations, which potentially implicate L&T—it has major operations in the UK—are a serious breach of domestic and international law. If companies want to operate in the UK, that must come at the price of proactively ensuring that their supply chains are free from slavery. UK companies operating around the world have a legal duty to uphold the law.
In a statement, Howden confirmed that it was in a joint venture with Larsen and Toubro in the power industry in India, but added:
“However, we are not aware of any issues around bonded or forced labour (or allegations thereof) in connection with L&T or a subcontractor of L&T in India.”
A spokesman for L&T denied the allegations of bonded labour and said the company had the highest standards of labour welfare at all establishments and job sites, and was compliant with Indian labour laws and Acts. He added:
“Among other rules and regulations, there are specific checks in place that prohibit the use of bonded labour. We understand from our project site that we hire various equipment from the agency (Jai and Raj), and confirm that no bonded labour is deployed at our project site, directly or indirectly.”
However, USi has evidence directly to the contrary, which it believes to be the tip of the iceberg of companies operating in the UK with ties to modern-day slavery and of UK companies operating in countries such as India that are implicated in those practices. That is why we need a robust response.
Analysis of the records of workers across three states shows that average wages over the working period of six months range between $2 and $3 a day. Those rates are significantly lower than the statutory minimum wage. Even to earn that level of wage, workers have to put in 12 or more hours of work every day. Even children are forced to work, as the food expenses given to workers are correlated with production levels. Lower production can simply mean that a family does not have enough to eat.
A significant change in law is needed. We need obligations with teeth. As the UN recognised in its guiding principles, it is not enough to encourage companies. If companies do not ensure respect, protection and human rights compliance, there must be proceedings that can be brought against them and remedies available through the courts.
Accordingly, the following obligations are a minimum for any company wanting to be registered to do business in the United Kingdom. First, they must do more than simply produce a report; there must be a positive obligation upon the company to proactively audit and carry out due diligence to ensure no human rights breaches within its operation in the United Kingdom or anywhere else it does business. Secondly, the same positive obligation must apply to subsidiary companies, joint ventures and supply chains, when the supply represents a minimum financial limit or a minimum percentage of a company’s turnover. Thirdly, any company that is linked to human rights breaches by its own operation, joint ventures, subsidiaries or supply chains will not be entitled to any Government subsidy or export credits. Fourthly, when a company knew or ought to have known about negligence or was recklessly indifferent to human rights breaches, it shall be liable to pay compensation for the extent of the human rights breaches against individuals in claims brought in the United Kingdom, irrespective of where the human rights breaches took place. Finally, deliberate, grossly negligent or reckless indifference to human rights breaches in such circumstances shall also be a basis upon which criminal proceedings may be brought against the company or individual directors.
I have referred to just one example, which is the tip of the iceberg of the total exploitation of vulnerable workers around the world. The British taxpayer is clearly saying that such exploitation should not be done in their name. They want no part of it. I ask the current Government, or whatever new Government we have after May, to take forward legislation to ensure that people are not exploited and that Britain and companies registered here play by the rules.
It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) for a good opening speech, in which he highlighted the severe exploitation of workers in the tobacco industry, particularly under British American Tobacco and R. J. Reynolds. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) made specific reference to the Blood Bricks campaign, and there are many other examples. My comments will centre on the food industry.
As the debate is focused on the UK’s supply chain, I will consider not only what we could do with regulations, but what we should tell supermarkets. There are effectively only six major buyers among the supermarkets and retailers in the UK. Those buyers sit in offices alongside people who are responsible for corporate responsibility and ethical trading. If they wanted to, they could drive a race to the top, rather than a race to the bottom. There is case for regulation, as I will describe in a moment, but there is also a case for going beyond regulation and actually telling companies, “You should be showing British leadership and world leadership.” We should go far beyond what regulations can deliver and seek far higher standards right along global supply chains.
My hon. Friend mentioned global leadership. The UK shows such leadership with our international development objectives in many of the countries where supply chains are located. Does it not make sense for us—a partnership of our business community, our public and our Government—to ensure that we are helping development in such countries with measures such as fair pay, decent work and decent working standards?
I agree entirely. While today’s focus has been on the deplorable gross exploitation of workers in different parts of the world, there is also routine, daily exploitation through the suppression of wages and the absence of terms and conditions and protections. There is no recognition not only of unions, but of grievances in the workplace. Many workers experience a dampening effect that keeps them under control, having to do what the employer says because they have no voice.
My hon. Friend is right to suggest what our cross-Government international development approach should be on the food and clothing sectors and so on. We should not only look to see where regulation can work, but work with the sectors and say, “As an island nation, we have such global reach that we should be forcing standards up.” We should not be waiting to be told to do that; we should be working at it now, whether in Africa, India or South America. Ultimately, if we have products on our shelves that are being produced extremely cheaply, we know that somebody or something is being exploited somewhere. In the food sector, that could mean exploitation of animals, communities or workers.
I ask hon. Members to cast their minds back to 2004 when some of this debate began. In the Morecambe bay tragedy, 32 Chinese cockle pickers died out on the mud banks. It was a horrendous incident that woke the country up to something that we thought could not happen in a modern society. Chinese workers, trafficked by rogue gangmasters into the UK, were exploited in terms of pay and conditions and then placed in hazardous and ultimately fatal conditions. They were paid £5 for 25 kg of cockles while being left to the ravages of the tide. In the eyes of the gangmasters, they were expendable. As a result of a cross-party and cross-sector approach, many people came together and said, “We must deal with this,” and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was established as a result.
The GLA has done tremendous work on tackling exploitation in a lean and mean way, but it is still happening. Back in 2012, two people were arrested in Kent following the exploitation 17 Lithuanian workers, who were being moved around the country in minivans to work. Sometimes they went without pay for weeks on end. Sometimes they received a pittance, but with deductions. They slept in a van as they travelled. When they were not sleeping in vans, they slept on floors in the most basic of portakabin accommodation. It was complete exploitation. What surprised people after it was picked up by the GLA was that it was occurring in our supposedly reputable food supply chain. It involved Noble Foods, which supplied companies such as McDonald’s, Tesco, Asda, M&S and Sainsbury’s. The products that Noble Foods supplied to those companies included—with no irony—chicken bearing the Freedom Food mark, yet people working for the company were being exploited and had no freedom themselves. It was debt bondage. They worked 17-hour shifts and slept on buses. It was crazy.
Well done to the GLA on that, but the point has already been well made by my colleagues that the GLA needs to follow its intelligence whenever exploitation is taking place. We know that it happens in the social care and construction sectors. It is a lean, mean organisation that now needs to target sectors where its nose suggests there is a stink and where exploitation is occurring.
I want to consider a more recent case that brings the issue right back home and into the produce that we take off the shelves and put on our plates. It has been reported that abuse and exploitation are widespread in the Thai fishing industry. It looks very much like slavery, but certainly involves human rights abuses. Thailand produces 4.2 million tonnes of seafood each year, 90% of which is exported. The main markets are the USA, the EU and the UK—we do like our seafood. The Guardian reported this year that people were forced to work 20 hours a day and endured regular beatings if they complained. They received one plate of rice a day to keep them going. People were purchased by boat captains from brokers for between £450 and £640—direct, old-fashioned slavery and exploitation of human beings. At every stage officials were bribed, so that the slaves could be brought in. The Guardian reported that a slave trafficker called the Thai police “business partners”, while the people forced to do the work were seen as expendable. Kevin Bales, an anti-trafficking activist, estimates that slaves cost 95% less than they did at the height of the 19th-century slave trade.
The vessels that use those slaves each year catch roughly 350,000 tonnes of so-called “trash fish”, turned into fishmeal for multinationals such as CP Foods, which supplies major retailers in the UK, including Asda, Iceland, Tesco, Morrisons and the Co-op. Many of those retailers—I come back to the point about the power of the retailers and the six major buyers in the UK—were not aware of what was going on, but many people would say, “You did not show due diligence in looking at what was happening in your supply chain.” The case has woken many retailers up, but the question is, why did it take that to wake them up?
CP Foods has stated that it requires its factories to buy trash fish only from legal and licensed boats. Captains, however, often fail to record where their fish comes from, so how can we have a trail for where the fish is being purchased? Tesco says that it regards slavery as unacceptable, and it is working with international organisations such as the ILO to achieve a broader change in the Thai fishing industry. All the retailers who were caught out have responded rigorously, in part to deal with reputational damage.
Exploitation remains a major concern. The two biggest industries in which exploitation, trafficking and slave labour are rife are the garment industry and the food industry. A tremendous amount could be done by the British food sector. My hon. Friends have already mentioned asks that go beyond where the Government are with the Modern Slavery Bill. We want to see elements from the Ethical Trading Initiative brought forward. We want to see comparability between different companies on reporting along the long line of their supply chains; we need to be able to compare Marks & Spencer, Tesco and everyone else in the UK—apples with apples, not apples with pears. We want to see directors having individual fiduciary duties to ensure the accuracy of reporting; we do not want another Thai fishing industry exploitation case to come up and a director to say, “I knew nothing about it. I did my best, but someone lower down the chain is responsible”—that is not good enough. Things have to stop right at the top; leadership has to come from the top. We also want not only large public, but privately listed companies included.
A lot more can be done, not only with regulation, but by working with such companies, so that we go way beyond regulation and so that the UK shows real leadership in ending exploitation in the food sector and every other sector mentioned by my colleagues. Consumers can also play a role, because the consumer voice, as we have seen in recent history, frequently shames sectors into taking action. Let us get on with it.
It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this vital debate, and him and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on their excellent work in highlighting the appalling abuse in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. The exploitation of the workers there shocked me. One hears about the American dream, but those workers were clearly not living the American dream; they were living what can only be described as an American nightmare, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck pointed out.
Depressingly, such exploitation is happening all around the world, not only in the most powerful nation on the planet, the United States of America. Exploitation is happening not only in developing nations, but in so-called highly developed western democracies. It is also happening, as my hon. Friends mentioned in their contributions, in what is, per capita, the richest nation on earth—Qatar.
I visited Qatar earlier this year with a delegation led by the construction workers’ union UCATT—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—and by the Building and Woodworkers’ International. We went to look at the impact of the World cup, the transformation taking place in that country and the terrible abuses to which construction workers and migrant workers across the piece are being subjected there. Again, I was absolutely shocked. When my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck was talking about the squalid circumstances in which the tobacco workers in North Carolina were living, it struck a chord, because that was precisely the kind of thing that I witnessed in Qatar. The working conditions, too, were appalling.
At one level, we can look at Qatar and say, “An amazing transformation is being made in that nation.” I visited what I believe to be the largest construction site anywhere in the world and it is incredible what is being done in the country, but there is absolutely no excuse for the kind of exploitation that migrant workers are being subjected to in order to make the transformation. Money cannot be the reason why people are being exploited, because Qatar is the richest nation on the planet, as I said. Nevertheless, it is subjecting workers to terrible working conditions, such as the heat of the day, and terrible living conditions.
When we arrived in Qatar, 1,200 workers had already lost their lives since the World cup had been awarded to the country. At an attrition rate of that level, 4,000 construction workers will have lost their lives before a ball is kicked in the World cup. That cannot be right and cannot be allowed to go on. There can be no excuse. What saddened me most of all was the fact that British companies are implicated in such exploitation.
On our trip, we visited Balfour Beatty, which at the time was carrying out some work in Qatar. A senior Balfour Beatty representative to whom we spoke told us, when we put it to him that workers were being subjected to such terrible exploitation, “You mustn’t look at this through western eyes. These people like to live together—in these appalling squalid circumstances.” He did not say the last bit, but that is what the circumstances in which they are living are like.
People are brought to Qatar by disreputable recruitment agencies, who lie to them about how they will be able to earn riches beyond their dreams, to send money back to their families and in effect to be set up for life. They are charged up to £1,500 for the privilege of getting there, but when they arrive they are told, “The salary you were told you were going to earn is not true. We will rip up that contract that you thought you had signed and give you this one. You can’t go back to your home country, by the way, because we will have your passport off you.” So people are trapped and, before they start to earn anything, they have to pay back the recruitment agency up to £1,500. They were told that they would earn a huge sum, but they are only earning about £30 a week. Those are skilled people—skilled tradesmen—who at best are earning about £30 to £35 a week. That is completely wrong and it is disgraceful that British companies are involved in that process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) hit the nail on the head when he talked about how the senior representatives in companies say, “We didn’t know anything about it.” I took it upon myself to get the House of Commons Library to provide me with a list, as best they could, of all the British companies operating in Qatar today. I have written to each and every single one of them demanding to know what steps they are taking to stop that exploitation.
When people are working incredibly hard, they are entitled to live in decent accommodation. In Qatar, not only do they work long days, but the labour camps are miles away from the construction sites; before people even start their day’s work, they have a one or two-hour bus journey and they have another at the end of the day. I was absolutely shocked. Yes, the conditions were squalid and filthy, but people have also not even got mattresses to sleep on, and there were eight, 10 or 12 people to a tiny room.
I could not believe what I was seeing—people did not even have mattresses. They were sleeping on bunk beds of hard, solid planks of wood. After a long, hard day of grafting in the heat of the day—I used to work in the construction industry so I know what a hard job it is, although we did not work those hours or in that kind of heat—they go home to appalling filth and squalor and they cannot even get a decent night’s sleep because they have to sleep on a hard plank of wood. Then the representative of Balfour Beatty tells us, “You mustn’t look at this through western eyes.” That kind of colonial mentality still seems to pervade these British companies.
The other point my hon. Friends referred to was the lack of trade union recognition in the tobacco fields. We put that to the Qatari authorities. It is vital that there should be freedom of association and the right to form a trade union in order to secure workers’ rights, and we want to see that. In fact, we could do with much greater trade union membership in this country, with the Government encouraging that rather than continually attacking the unions and their attempts to secure workers’ rights over here. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore talked about the cockle pickers—would they not have benefited from being members of a trade union? They certainly would not have been put at risk of losing their lives.
It was Ted Heath who once talked about the “unacceptable face of capitalism.” Here we have just that in the examples highlighted by my hon. Friends and what I saw in Qatar. That is the unacceptable face of capitalism and British companies are implicated in it. When I wrote to those companies, all bar one of them—I think—came back to me and effectively said, “It’s nowt to do with us, guv—we don’t employ these workers directly.” They were washing their hands of the issue in a kind of Pontius Pilate approach. They say, “You can’t blame us,” but they are happy to take the profits from this huge transformation.
It is incumbent on the Government today—I hope that the Minister will do this when she responds to the points made by my hon. Friends—to explain what they are doing about the British companies implicated in exploiting workers across the globe. From the United States of America to Qatar and beyond, that must stop and the Government have a huge and important role to play in making it stop. When we have asked questions about that, we have heard encouraging words from Ministers. They have said that human rights are sacrosanct and that they will certainly bring pressure to bear on the Governments—and, I hope, the companies—who are implicated.
However, there is a twin pressure. While on the one hand we hear welcome talk from Ministers who say, “Human rights is important and we’re going to bring pressure,” on the other hand, when we are talking about places such as Qatar, the rewards are immense because the contracts run into many billions of pounds. I know that representatives from Qatar have been here and have had meetings with the Mayor of London and, as I understand it, with Ministers too—I do not know what they spoke about, but I understand that they are keen to secure work in Qatar—so I wonder whether the Government are speaking with a forked tongue. I hope that they are not, because it is really important that their response is about not just rhetoric, but action. That is what I want to hear.
I am pleased to see the Minister nodding her head. I hope that, when she gets up, she will tell us about some of the positive actions that the Government have taken and those that they propose to take to ensure that we do not have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore said, the continual race to the bottom. British companies and the British Government should be about a race to the top. We should be setting standards. We have a proud tradition going back many years of standing up for human rights, so it is really important that the Government step up to the plate in all the circumstances highlighted, including those I highlighted in Qatar.
I want to close with a quotation from Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book in America, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” He said:
“Capitalism should be the slave of democracy, not the other way around.”
I could not have put it better myself. That is essential, because if capitalism is not the slave of democracy and it serves only the richest and most powerful people around the world, what is the point of it? If it is only about exploiting ordinary working people, I would say let us throw it aside and have a socialist state in every nation. However, I am not actually asking for that. Capitalism can work, but we need to make it work—we need to make it the slave of democracy. In conclusion, when we hear from the Minister, I hope that she will give us some indication of how the Government will ensure that workers are protected and that capitalism is indeed made to be a slave of democracy, not the other way around.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on leading the debate and I commend him and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on their initiative in North Carolina and the meetings that they have held here since. I was struck that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck made the trip to North Carolina having been in Columbia the previous week with me and others on a Justice for Colombia trip.
When we were in Colombia, among the things we witnessed was a major project driven by the EU-Colombia free trade agreement that is leading to the degradation of land rights and further abuse of labour rights. However, in a poignant way that project is not just throwing up issues about new dimensions of modern slavery; it saw us meet Afro-Colombian families who are the descendents of the original escaped slaves—the people who were given and found this land by the shores in Colombia—who are now being driven off that land and forced to live in concrete batteries up mountains, well away from their previous experiences. That is happening not just to them, but to indigenous peoples as well.
That mega project of a super port at Buenaventura is driven not just by the Colombian Government and big business, but by myriad vicious paramilitaries who are completely indulged by the police. That is one of the reasons why, as a member of the Modern Slavery Bill Committee, in Committee and on Report I tabled amendments that would have broadened the issues around ethical trading and supply-chain proofing. That was to make sure not just that customers were taking responsibility for what happened in the workshops from which they bought goods, but that people were taking responsibility for wider aid and trade policies that were driving wholesale, pernicious human rights abuses, affecting not only people’s labour and land rights, but their basic living conditions and even where they had the right to live.
In the Bill Committee, we did see progress on supply chains. Initially, the Bill was completely deficient in that area, but there was strong lobbying, which, I must acknowledge, came from Members on both sides of the House—from the Government Benches and the Opposition Benches, and from parties big and small—and that was reflected in the Committee. Obviously, there was also a big lobby, involving groups ranging from Anti-Slavery International to the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, Oxfam, UNICEF and many others, and they all highlighted, among other issues, the Bill’s deficiency in that respect.
Even though all those groups and coalitions inside and outside Parliament must be commended on the strong case they made to the Government, the business voices responding to the ethical trading initiative were decisive in persuading Ministers. Although I commend the businesses involved for being ethically alert and active and for working in partnership with others, it is a poor comment on the Bill that the issue would have been missed altogether had it not been for the intensity of those business voices.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some of the more progressive, ethically aware companies see the competitive advantage in driving higher standards, which will, hopefully, drive the rogues out of the marketplace in different sectors. There is therefore an advantage in driving higher standards.
Exactly. That is exactly the point those businesses made, and it was clearly taken on board by Members on both sides of the House. It was also stressed by the trade union movement, which has been an active driver of the ethical trading initiative.
Whenever the Government resisted widening the Bill’s scope, they would tell us that ethical auditing was already taking place. However, ethical auditing, as talked about and supposedly practised over a number of years, is really a badge for big business, rather than a shield for vulnerable, exploited workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and others have quoted examples of scandals that have been identified, including the case of the Thai fishing industry, which was revealed in The Guardian. We were previously told that those things were the subject of ethical auditing—that companies were aware of the issues and would respond to any problems—but it is up to somebody else to show them the problems, and then they respond.
In the example of the Thai fishing industry, there has been some positive response subsequently. After The Guardian exposed the story, with the assistance of Anti-Slavery International, that organisation, along with Thai NGOs, retailers and seafood suppliers, embarked on a project called Issara—the Thai word for “freedom”. The inspections the project team has been able to carry out are already delivering positive results and driving change. That shows that there needs to be effective intervention, as hon. Members have said.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, effective intervention should be about making sure not only that companies are liable and held to account for what happens in their supply chain, but that the state has the power to ban goods. What is the point of passing legislation saying that companies will have responsibilities and liabilities in terms of knowing what is going on in their supply chains, saying that we encourage consumers to be responsible, conscientious and aware—for example, that the goods they buy may come from southern India, where young Dalit women and girls are exploited, or from Uzbekistan, where the exploitation involves not just companies, but the Government—and saying that there is a responsibility on consumers, suppliers and retailers, if there is no responsibility on the state? If it is evident that the sourcing or manufacture of a product involves slavery and human rights abuses, there should be the power to ban that product.
Such a power has existed in American law since 1930—since the Tariff Act—and it was in the scope of one of the amendments I tabled to the Bill to say that there should be the power to ban or prohibit something where there was clear evidence of abuse. That amendment would not have imposed a duty on the state to police trading practices in all parts of the world, but it would have been based on the state’s right to respond when someone else brought evidence to it. In the American system, the Department of Homeland Security can be petitioned with evidence, and it would then have the power to issue a ban. If we are serious about dealing with these issues, we should follow through.
My hon. Friend is right. I am closely following his point about the importance of the state being meticulous in enforcing greater protections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, these multinational companies are quick to resort to litigation, and they will spend a lot of money on lawyers. Chevron, for example, had a case brought against it for causing terrible pollution in the Ecuadorian rain forest, but it said it would fight the case
“until hell freezes over and then fight it out on the ice.”
When international companies have that attitude, states need to be strong and to stand up for their citizens; otherwise, these powerful companies will ride roughshod over them.
I fully accept my hon. Friend’s point. That is why, rather than leaving these issues to all sorts of litigation, there should be the power to ban a product where it can be specifically identified.
I have closely followed all that my hon. Friend has said today and previously about Qatar. Several Members in the Bill Committee mentioned the system of employer-tied visas for domestic workers in the UK, where the visa, which rests with the employer and is almost their property, can be abused in a way that makes the employee their chattel. The style and logic of the visa system used to exploit workers in Qatar are exactly the same, and that should give us all pause for thought.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Crausby.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) not only for bringing this issue here for debate, but for visiting Colombia and the North Carolina tobacco fields and for his report, which I would encourage all Members of the House to read to see what he experienced. We should all reflect on the personal, real-life stories he has told us this morning and do everything we can to resolve some of the issues.
I also pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) for all his work on these issues not only in the UK, where he has stood up for the rights of individual workers, but across the world. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his dedication, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority may never have come into being. The authority has transformed the lives of many in the UK, and I hope it will be a blueprint for transforming many other lives across the world.
The issue is huge: global exploitation in UK companies’ supply chains cannot be tolerated and we should say that clearly. We cannot be serious about tolerating slavery in the United Kingdom if we are prepared to accept the use of slave labour for products or in construction in other parts of the world. We have heard many examples this morning of such forced labour, including blood bricks. The 1,200 people killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza were supplying clothing to some of our main high street stores, many of which will do quite brisk trade over the festive season as the public do their Christmas shopping with them. We heard, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), about prawn fishermen held in a lifetime of slavery. We have heard, and I have certainly read, about the human rights issues affecting them, and about bodies torn apart by vessels for fun. The prawns were being sold to many high street stores—Tesco, and even the Co-op. It is not good enough for those companies to say “We didn’t realise it was happening.” Our conclusion today—the whole point of the debate—should be for the Government to say it is unacceptable and that ignorance is no defence, and that we should do something about it. We should put the onus on companies to investigate their supply chains.
We have heard many times about small children being paid pennies a day for sewing sequins on to children’s clothes, and we heard reports from the tobacco fields of North Carolina. I was much struck by the wonderful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) about serious exploitation in Qatar, in the building of World cup venues. It is the primary sporting event in the world, and those workers are being exploited. How can we possibly tolerate the possibility that in a few years’ time Scottish football fans may celebrate, in the patriotic way of passionate fans, goals scored by a Scottish football team at those venues—when the death toll for building those very terraces could be as high as 4,000? That must be unacceptable, because there is a blueprint for how to carry out such projects properly. The UK Olympics in London was a major construction project—one of the biggest in the world at the time. There was not one death. It can be done, and we should secure legislation to prevent such deaths.
There are various studies showing that the public are highly aware of the issue; 84% of the UK public want legislation and so do the overwhelming majority of companies. The Government have come some way on the question of supply chains, as we shall probably hear from the Minister, with regard to the Modern Slavery Bill; but the Opposition think that they should go an awful lot further. Some of the stories that we have heard today reinforce that.
Most large retailers are implementing policies to tackle the issue, but it is hard to see tangible progress that would enable consumers to make direct comparisons between companies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned. We must be able to compare apples with apples rather than pears. That is why we must introduce mandatory standards for reporting, to force companies to adopt standard procedures. We must be able to assess supply chains, because we want to support British businesses that act on the issue, and create a level playing field. It is a pro-business agenda, and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) was right to suggest that. Businesses want to stamp out the practices in question. However, we will not get to the stage where the advantage to business is clear unless there is a level playing field to allow comparisons to be made and businesses that do not take action to be exposed. Many large companies have backed legislation to create a level playing field, and so have the British Retail Consortium and the Ethical Trading Initiative, which was set up with 81 corporate members. Retailers are also acting. Sainsbury’s, Next and even Primark have complained about competitors who have not acted.
A community of NGOs and businesses has coalesced around the Ethical Trading Initiative to recognise that three fundamental things are needed. First, it concluded that there must be more regulation of national and international supply chains to establish the level playing field. Secondly, there should be a partnership with unions and non-governmental organisations; that would be essential to tackling forced labour issues in international supply chains. Thirdly, Governments would need to shoulder their portion of the burden in tackling those issues. I believe that when Governments regulate in such matters, although it is necessary, it is because there has been a significant business failure. I think that businesses have recognised that and that they must do something about it.
UK companies undoubtedly have hugely complex supply chains, as we have heard in the debate. That is particularly true of the fishing matters set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore. Even best practice in auditing is not foolproof. That is why the approach must be about changing market conditions and creating incentives for the suppliers to be shown to be fair. That would mean suppliers being able to show that they meet International Labour Organisation standards, backed up by kite marking and a proper inspection regime.
I acknowledge, as I think that everyone would, that it is hard for UK companies to implement that approach individually. They say that to us consistently; but collective action could make it the norm. The Bribery Act 2010 has reduced the burden on business by creating consistent standards and an industry to audit them. It is regulation, and the Government will talk about their one in, two out approach to regulation; but the Act has brought in consistent standards, reducing the burden on business and creating a level playing field.
As to the Modern Slavery Bill, the Government have to some extent had to be dragged along kicking and screaming. It took them until Report to introduce relevant provisions, and there was massive criticism of their proposals, questioning whether they are appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck concluded that the lack of proper, enforceable regulation led to the removal of all humane conditions from the supply chain—something he witnessed on his many visits.
We proposed amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill in Committee. They would have built on proposals from the Joint Committee that dealt with the draft Bill, and would have allowed for legal reporting on the supply chain within the Companies Act 2006, and regulations including four standard reporting elements, with definitive actions for companies. It is not good enough for companies just to report on those issues. They must also show that they have taken action.
The first of the four elements was accountability for tackling modern slavery and forced labour, including policy commitments, resourcing and actions to exercise due diligence. The second was that modern slavery and forced labour risks should be investigated, monitored and audited in the UK and throughout global supply chains. The third was that victims of forced labour and modern slavery should have support, and access to remedy. It is not good enough just to deal with today’s problem. Things that have happened in the past must also be dealt with. The fourth thing on the list was, crucially, that staff and suppliers should be trained and have access to expertise and advice in dealing with the issues. Those are the critical things that we need to think about to get robust and legally enforceable reporting mechanisms.
We welcome the measures that the Government have introduced, as far as they go, but they need to go further. In the other place, Lord Rosser, who tabled some amendments, concluded:
“I can only comment that it is very difficult for civil society to make a judgment if there is not enough information in the statements in the first place.”
He added that there is no legal requirement to produce the relevant statements and that the Bill
“still does not go far enough and will not enable those judgments to be made by society, whether it be consumers, voluntary organisations, the media or others.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 December 2014; Vol. 757, c. 1892.]
We can see that proper regulations work. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority works. The groceries code adjudicator is limited but seems to be working. Where there is good regulation, such as the Bribery Act 2010, it can work.
I will be interested to hear whether the Minister will respond to the debate by saying that the Government will present proper, strong, robust regulations. It is clear from what we have heard this morning that morally unjustifiable things are happening in our supply chains. As consumers in the marketplace going shopping we should know clearly where products come from and how the companies look after their employees. If we do not act we will have missed an opportunity. Not only that, but the United Kingdom will be ducking its responsibilities on the international stage to do something about what is happening.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. It is also a great pleasure to respond to this thoughtful and powerful debate. It is customary on such occasions to say that this has been a good debate, but it really has been striking, particularly the number of examples of individuals who are suffering in the most horrific conditions. Sometimes the discussion of business issues and human rights becomes abstract, and bringing it back to individuals is helpful.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this debate and on sharing his personal testimony and experience of the individuals he has visited. He is right that this is an issue on which there is a moral duty. Of course there are business benefits from improving human rights, as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and others have said, and it is important that we make that business case, but the hon. Member for Wansbeck put his finger on it when he said that this is a moral duty. We are all human beings, and human rights are universal. Whatever we do and whatever our role, whether we are working in business, politics or the media, we have a responsibility to other human beings and to ensure that human rights are upheld.
The Government are taking a range of action, of which I am proud and which I warmly welcome and champion, from narrative reporting to our work with different sectors, including the retail sector, to ensure that they are improving their practices. We have also amended the Modern Slavery Bill to address supply chain reporting, to which I will return. At EU level there is also non-financial reporting, and of course we support these issues at the United Nations through the business and human rights action plan, which we were the first country to create. We can take international leadership on this issue, but that does not mean that there is any room for complacency.
It is also important to recognise that, although the issue is simple in terms of morality and what is right, it unfortunately is not simple to work out how to stop human rights abuses. Various Members have mentioned that some companies sometimes offer the excuse, “We didn’t know what was going on,” but it is true that it can be difficult for companies to get to the bottom of every part of their supply chain. There is a role for sharing best practice and for helping companies to understand the best way to get that information. There is a dividend or benefit from taking the issue seriously and creating what the hon. Member for Ogmore described as a race to the top. We need to do that.
Earlier this month I was in Geneva for the UN forum on business and human rights. It was the third time the forum has taken place, which shows how international business is taking this issue more seriously. The feedback I received from the 1,900 delegates was that the forum was much more constructive and positive both for business groups and for non-governmental organisations than in the previous two years, which is a sign of progress. I met a group of UK businesses that have signed up to the UN global compact, which commits them to reporting annually on the actions they are taking on a range of issues from working conditions to environmental impacts and human rights. Businesses turning up to the UN forum on business and human rights are probably already fairly committed to taking the issue seriously, but it is good that the forum shows that a large number of UK companies are doing so.
It is good to hear about that international co-ordination to ensure that multinational companies are rightly reflecting on this issue, but that principle should also apply across Government here in the UK. Is the Minister therefore disappointed that the Department for International Development has withdrawn its funding for the International Labour Organisation?
I will happily speak to colleagues in DFID and write to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller answer. A range of international organisations play a hugely important role, and obviously the Government always need to consider the best way to further our overall objectives. I will certainly write to him on the specifics of that point.
There were many NGO representatives in Geneva who were rightly passionate about ensuring access to justice for victims of human rights abuses. I spoke a little of my personal commitment to this issue. Indeed, one of my political heroines when I was growing up and deciding to study business was Anita Roddick. She was a pioneer in proving that business has a social responsibility that needs to be taken seriously. I remember reading her book, “Business as Unusual,” which I found incredibly inspiring on the role that business can play. Business should be, and often can be, a force for good in our society. It ought to be a way of taking humanity forward, rather than ultimately being responsible for exploitation. Capitalism goes wrong when that happens, as some Members mentioned, but business is able to be a force for good.
As I said, many UK businesses are taking this issue seriously, but some are perhaps not taking it as seriously as they should. The examples we have heard today back that up. The hon. Member for Wansbeck talked very powerfully about the squalid conditions in North Carolina. We are used to talking about such issues in other parts of the world, but we would not necessarily expect it to happen in a country such as America. That juxtaposition of such wealth with such poverty and disregard for rights is awful, particularly when he talked about the example of a seven-year-old girl or someone who had part of their finger cut off without even being able to get hospital treatment.
The hon. Member for Ogmore rightly focused on the responsibility of big companies such as supermarkets and their power to drive change. He is right that, if something is incredibly cheap, it is not always the result of wonderful business efficiency. Sometimes that might be the case, but sometimes it means that someone, somewhere is being exploited, and he is right to point that out.
The hon. Gentleman also addressed the comparability of reporting so that people can compare apples with apples, rather than with oranges, which is a useful analogy in the context of our conversation about the food industry. This is an important issue, and at the event in Geneva there were some interim results from an interesting, in-depth study by The Economist on business attitudes to human rights. One of the early indications is that, when business leaders were asked what would make the biggest difference to their behaviour, they talked about some kind of benchmarking tool so that companies can be compared. Such a tool needs to be developed with care because these are genuinely complex issues, but UK companies such as Aviva are leading the way. There is an exciting project to create a human rights benchmark so that companies across the country, and internationally, can be compared so that we may have a proper analysis of their human rights records.
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) relayed stories about his experiences in Qatar, and they are a hugely powerful account of disgraceful behaviour, particularly in such an incredibly rich country. What I found most breathtaking about his speech was Balfour Beatty’s reported comment that we must not look at this issue through western eyes. I was blown away by that comment. Human rights are universal. Whether someone is in squalid conditions and having to work ridiculous hours here or in another part of the world, we should be concerned and acting to change the situation—responsible UK companies will act to change the situation.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s action on writing to UK companies, and I know that he wants action from the Government, which is why we are introducing the reporting requirement on supply chains so that companies have to say what they are doing on slavery and trafficking. I am delighted that that amendment has been made to the Modern Slavery Bill. I have met campaigners on that issue over the past couple of years, and there is a strong case for introducing the requirement to drive transparency and change behaviour.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) mentioned the voice of business, and there is a strong voice within the business community, which wants to see progress on these issues and is supportive of many of these measures. This is a complex issue, which is why the solution cannot be easily described in a soundbite; it is about proper engagement with business, and it is about taking the UN guiding principles that were developed by Professor Ruggie over a significant course of time and therefore have the buy-in of key players. He and his team are still very involved in trying to make that a reality. The UK has published its action plan, and a handful of countries have now published their own action plans, but we must ensure that we use that leadership to do what we need to do in our own country and to encourage other countries to do the same. I fully believe that in 20 or 30 years, this will be seen as a key and obvious business issue, but we are now at the stage where it has to be established. We have made great progress compared with 10 or 15 years ago, but there is still a lot more to do. I welcome today’s debate.