Combating human trafficking: business and human rights

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

FCO Minister Hugo Swire spoke about the need for government, civil society and business to work together to eradicate human trafficking.

Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said:

Thank you all for joining us for today’s discussions. I would like to particularly thank the team from Wilton Park, who have helped to organise this important event.

In October last year, I stood if not in this very room, in this suite of rooms, and spoke at a reception about the urgent need to tackle the scourge of human trafficking. Then, as now, millions of men, women and children across the world were feeling the effects of the modern slave trade – a ruthless industry of unprecedented scale and barbarity.

In that speech I focussed on its global nature, arguing that “human trafficking is a transnational threat that requires a transnational response.”

I set out how the international community could work together to break each link in the human trafficking chain. The first was prevention – working to reduce the vulnerability of people to human traffickers. Next was transit – preventing victims from being removed from their own countries or forced into others. And finally, repatriation and reintegration – finding a way to expedite the safe return home of victims, reuniting them with their families and ensuring we do all we can to protect them from ever being trafficked again. We all know the statistics.

Today I will return to these three links.

But as we prepare to discuss this problem in the context of the business supply chain, I want to talk about how human trafficking requires not just a transnational response, but a trans-societal response – using tools like the UK’s Business and Human Rights Action Plan to effect real, tangible and measurable change.

Because the modern slave trade is so widespread, and so pervasive, that it cannot be solved by government, civil society or indeed by business alone. Only by working in partnership will we shatter the links in the chain and eradicate the trafficking of people once and for all.

The need for action

Now, I am conscious that I’m surrounded by experts, so I don’t need to convince you of why we need to act. But it’s an important question, so I will, if I may, make a few quick observations.

First is the sheer scale of the problem. We talk about the abolition of the slave trade, but in reality human trafficking today is worth more than £22 billion every year. And while estimates vary significantly, it is thought that as many as 27 million people are held captive at any one moment.

That brings me onto my second point: that human trafficking is amongst the most inhumane and cruel forms of human rights abuse. Victims can as we all know be sexually exploited, forced into labour and domestic servitude, compelled into committing criminal offences, or even have their organs harvested.

On Monday I met a victim of human trafficking and heard first-hand about the devastating effects the trade can have on people’s lives. It gave me a sense of the moral imperative to act against those who view people as nothing more than commodities to be traded and exploited.

Added to this moral imperative is my final observation: the simple fact that human trafficking fuels so many other problems. Organised crime, terrorism and the arms and drugs trades are all given life by human trafficking – multiplying the misery for individuals and communities, putting our police forces under strain and costing the country hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

All of this we know. We know that human trafficking takes lives and ruins countless others. And we know that we’ll only bring it to an end by addressing the three links in the human trafficking chain. So the question is, what have we done since I last spoke here to break those links, and what more do we need to do?


I made clear last year that human trafficking is a priority for the Coalition Government, and that Ministers from the Prime Minister down are personally engaged. It’s why we have established an Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on human trafficking, launched the United Kingdom’s first ever Human Trafficking Strategy, and signed up to the EU Directive on Trafficking Human Beings.

As part of this process, the Government has taken some important steps in the last year to reduce the vulnerability of people to human traffickers – the first link in the chain.

We have continued our work to address the underlying conditions of vulnerability, from poverty and poor education to lack of employment opportunities. I would highlight in particular a programme launched by the Department for International Development this year providing close to £10 million over five years to help prevent the trafficking of women and girls from South Asia in the domestic work and garment sectors. Over 100,000 women and girls are set to benefit.

We have also undertaken a range of projects through our diplomatic missions across the globe to raise awareness of the risk of trafficking. In Romania, for example, we commissioned research by the International Organisation for Migration to identify how traffickers recruit UK-bound victims, which we will use to develop a public awareness campaign with the National Anti-Trafficking Agency and NGOs.

And in Hungary, our Embassy co-funded an awareness programme at the Sziget Festival in Budapest – one of Europe’s largest music and cultural festivals.

We’ve taken strong action at home as well.

Many here will know that we have started work to tighten up our laws on human trafficking – an important step in addressing prosecution rates that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has rightly said are “shockingly low” across Europe.

And just last month we launched our Business and Human Rights Action Plan – the United Kingdom becoming the first country in the world to launch a specific plan for implementing the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Guiding Principles, published in 2011. This, I would submit, is a crucial move, and I know it will form an important element of today’s discussions.

The Action Plan helps businesses to understand and meet their human rights responsibilities, and responds directly to the feedback we received in our discussions with businesses over the last couple of years – notably that they want clear, consistent messaging, and certainty, about the Government’s expectations of them, as well as support in meeting those expectations.

All of this has a direct impact on preventing human trafficking. Because effective audit processes that protect workers’ rights in a supply chain help to ensure that the supply chain is not used by traffickers and unscrupulous employers as a source of income.

To help businesses implement the Guiding Principles we have clarified the Companies Act 2006, which now requires company directors to include human rights issues in their annual reports. We have also funded an online hub to provide guidance and information and a space for companies to share and exchange best practice.

There is much more to be done on each of these strands of work, but the common thread is that our engagement with civil society and businesses, particularly on the Action Plan, has been – and will continue to be – crucial to ensure that our efforts to prevent trafficking in the first place are as effective as possible.

It is also critical that we encourage our international partners to follow suit and implement the Guiding Principles in their own countries.


But we must accept that, at least for now, the traffickers will sometimes get the better of us. Like all successful international criminal enterprises, they are highly organised, ruthless, and they will stop at nothing to protect themselves and their profits.

While some victims are kidnapped and held domestically, most are likely to be foreign nationals, brought into a country to provide a cheap source of labour. It is therefore vital that police and border staff do more to close down exit and entry points for traffickers, identify them and potential victims, disrupt their activities, share intelligence, ensure that perpetrators have nowhere to hide and – crucially – follow through with prosecutions.

The establishment this month of the National Crime Agency – alongside our new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy – will make an important contribution to this effort, strengthening the excellent work already underway by our law enforcement agencies and their partners. The Agency will prioritise bringing to justice the criminals involved in human trafficking, and it will also have a powerful intelligence hub enabling police and child exploitation experts to share information that will lead to prosecution and conviction.

At a government level, we are also using the UK’s diplomatic network to assist local law enforcement, and our Ambassadors and High Commissioners are pressing their host authorities to take more intensive action.

We are working through partnerships such as the EU and the Five Country Conference, which includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to stamp out trafficking across our borders. We are offering our expertise through initiatives like a workshop held in Beijing by the Home Office, which helped teach Chinese consular and immigration officials to identify potential victims and support those who have been trafficked.

And we are guarding against complacency in our own capabilities – for example by facilitating an NSPCC training project aimed at UK visa staff in Nigeria to improve their ability to identify child trafficking victims and ensure child protection.

But as this final example demonstrates, the transit link cannot be broken by government alone. I want to see much more collaboration between government, civil society and business, because only by harnessing our collective weight will we be able to counter the threat. That means more training, more joint work to raise awareness – with both the potential victims and those in a position to help them. In particular, businesses must recognise the role they can play – not least by implementing the UN Guiding Principles and tackling labour exploitation.

Of course, many companies have already made the link between their business activity and respect for human rights. Many already have human rights policies woven into their objectives and operations. Others are already addressing issues linked to human rights within their operations but calling them different names, such as labour standards, health and safety or non-discrimination.

All of these are barriers to traffickers exploiting vulnerabilities in supply chains and recruitment practices. And through collaborative efforts like the Ethical Trading Initiative – a part DFID-funded alliance of companies, trade unions and organisations working to improve the lives of vulnerable workers – we can have an even greater impact.

Repatriation and reintegration

For those who become victims of trafficking – like the young man I met just three days ago – we have a responsibility to support them, expedite their return home and do all we can to ensure their long-term safety: the third link in the chain.

Victims from abroad seeking to return home must be able to do so quickly and safely. They need to be confident that they can rebuild their lives, find work, find their families and reintegrate into society.

That’s why the Government is working with other governments and civil society organisations to help victims of trafficking learn new skills and reintegrate. In Vietnam, for example, we opened a UK-funded shelter for young female victims of trafficking, which teaches the skills they need to aid their reintegration into society. And we are undertaking work to develop the Vietnamese authorities’ capacity to support returnees – for instance by providing training to social workers and state employees who work with trafficking victims.

Measures like these are crucial, because one of the most shocking characteristics about human trafficking is its capacity to drag victims back into the cycle of suffering. As everyone here will know, when a person is freed from trafficking, they are more – not less – likely to fall victim to it again. The data on this is patchy, but we know that women and children are the most vulnerable, particularly during the two years immediately after being freed. The international community must do more to address this problem.


It is absolutely clear that human trafficking has been far from eradicated. We hear with shocking frequency accounts of those who have been subjected to this most despicable of modern industries. Just a couple of weeks ago there were reports of the rescue of no fewer than 92 children, and two women, who had been kidnapped for sale by a gang in China.

It is equally clear that, while we have taken important steps to tackle the trafficking threat, there is much more work to do – and for all sections of society.

Civil society groups must continue to shine the light on these crimes, using their commitment, expertise and compassion to raise awareness and support victims.

Businesses must continue to improve their policies and practices to tackle human trafficking and other human rights abuses in their supply chains, from source to destination.

And governments must continue to prioritise this issue by: building international and local frameworks to make trafficking as difficult as we possibly can; ensuring that their law enforcement agencies pursue each and every case with vigour, from discovery to prosecution; and by making sure that the victims are able to rebuild their lives free from the shadow of re-trafficking.

By working together – harnessing our collective capabilities to take the fight to the traffickers – I believe we can shatter the links that sustain human trafficking and eradicate this pernicious trade for good.

Further information

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