This IASC blog has been written by Emma Crates, IASC Prevent Lead.


Operation Fort one year on - What progress is business making in fighting exploitation?

You may have seen stories about Operation Fort in the headlines last summer. This was when eight members of an organised crime group were convicted of modern slavery and human trafficking offences. It was the largest case of its kind to go through the British courts, and involved years of painstaking police work, and immense bravery of the victims who testified.

Police identified 92 victims, but estimate that there were 400 in total. They were all Polish, mainly male, and put to work in agricultural and DIY supply chains, as well as a recycling plant.

The story of how victims were tricked and trapped can be read in the IASC review of Operation Fort. Their plight is all too familiar for anyone who follows such cases. What surprised many was how the organised crime group managed to infiltrate the supply chains of major UK retailers.

This should not be so surprising. Our view in the Commissioner’s office is that every supply chain is at risk. It is almost certain that the criminals behind Operation Fort infiltrated many more supply chains than those identified.

Over the past few months, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, has been meeting with retailers and suppliers to hear how they have responded to Operation Fort.

These conversations culminated in a virtual launch on 16 June 2020 , where 100 people from business, law enforcement, government and the NGO sector came together to discuss the lessons of the case.

John Shropshire OBE, chairman of G’s, Judith Batchelar OBE, director of brand at Sainsbury’s and Jemima Jewell, interim corporate responsibility lead at Waitrose kindly agreed to respond to the IASC review, before a general discussion.

Major themes coming out of the event were also reflected in the IASC maturity matrix and in the Commissioner’s agenda for action.


Ownership, accountability and training

The companies that are leading on the anti-slavery agenda, are usually doing so from the top of the organisation, embedding their strategy and governance into a broader human rights framework.

Judith talked about the need to “hardwire” requirements into normal business processes, from the way suppliers are assessed, to the way a business discloses information in its modern slavery statement.

One way of encouraging ownership in different levels of the business is through strategic training. Jemima noted that Waitrose is “doubling down efforts” to ensure contract managers are trained to recognise and question modern slavery risk areas.

Building trust and a no-blame culture

Modern slavery victims are often suffering emotional and physical abuse and are unlikely to reveal their situation in standard audits or worker interviews. As a result, the need to cultivate trust is essential. G’s has a sophisticated system for tracking worker welfare over a long time period. The company is also introducing videos and raising awareness to explain to workers how their anonymity can be assured through its reporting channels

But what about building trust with supply chains? It’s feared that many smaller suppliers may be tempted to sweep issues under the carpet, for fear of losing contracts. Jemima stressed the need for cultivating a “culture of openness” in reporting modern slavery risk, calling for the sector to move from a “naming and shaming mentality” to working in collaboration with all stakeholders.


Collaboration and intelligence sharing

All speakers agreed with the need for better intelligence sharing across the sector. As John noted:

“No business can make a difference on its own, because criminals will move on to another business”.

G’s is now collaborating with M&S and other stakeholders to develop an information sharing platform.

Judith, welcoming the initiative, agreed that it was important for businesses to work together in a “precompetitive space”. Discussions are now underway about what form this initiative might take.


Lessons from Covid-19

Since Operation Fort, industry’s challenges have intensified since the onset of Covid-19, the looming recession and the UK’s impending departure from the European Union.

However, Judith noted that industry should take some confidence from the way it had handled Covid-19. This includes working in unprecedented ways with government, NGOs, competitors and regulators.

She added that, during the crisis, data sharing in “hours rather than weeks or months” had become the new norm.

But Judith acknowledged that the many industry examples of best practice in fighting exploitation needed to become “common practice”.

“We’re all going to have to raise our game proportionately if we’re going to protect our communities and the vulnerable in our supply chains,” she said.


The Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner would like to thank all the organisations that participated in the Operation Fort review and everyone who joined the launch.