Today I joined business leaders, law enforcement and government at a watershed conference in Armagh to discuss how to work across the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to tackle modern slavery and trafficking for labour exploitation.

Ensuring that the supply chains of businesses operating in the UK are free from slavery is a key priority in my role as Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. As supply chains have globalised and demand for cheap products and ever cheaper labour has continued to increase, the risk of slavery in supply chains, in the UK and internationally, has become much greater.

The fact that there were 28 victims of modern slavery identified to have been trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation in Northern Ireland last year shows that businesses based here are turning a profit at the expense of human freedom.

Indeed, while there is increasing awareness, for example, that modern slavery is present in the fishing industry in the Indian Ocean, an extensive investigation by the Guardian revealed that it is also very much present in Irish Waters. The investigation highlighted two key issues for me:

Firstly, the importance of a cross border and international response to tackling slavery. In this instance the key entry point for many of those being trafficked seems to be Belfast, with many then being moved to other towns across the Republic of Ireland. So collaboration across Irish borders is critical. But beyond this, we must also work in partnership with the countries where people are being trafficked from so we can prevent slavery from happening at its source.

Secondly, it is critical that we work in partnership to tackle labour exploitation. Modern slavery is a serious crime and should be treated as such by law enforcement. But while modern slavery exists, unwittingly, in the supply chains of legitimate businesses, the police, Gangmasters Licensing Authority and others should be looking to work in partnership with businesses to combat this crime, and vice versa. By taking a robust interest in their supply chains, and being willingly to embrace the non-punitive approach of the new Modern Slavery Act, business can play a transformational role in this fight.

I am already working with partners in Ireland, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, An Garda Síochána, Police Scotland, Seafish, Immigration Enforcement, the International Labour Organisation and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority through the Santa Marta Group to tackle labour exploitation in the fishing industry in UK and Irish waters.

I hope that today’s conference will spark more of these vital collaborations – across borders and sectors. Only then can we ensure that no more human lives are sacrificed for profit.

Kevin Hyland OBE