Winners 2019

Best corporate responsibility initiative

Co-op tackles modern slavery and supports victims

Slavery may be thought of as an injustice from another time but the reality is that today, in the UK, there are an estimated 136,000 victims of modern slavery – that’s roughly the population of Blackpool – while more than 40 million people worldwide are believed to enslaved.

Campaigning is part of the Co-op’s DNA, and, at its annual meeting in 2017, members voted overwhelmingly in support of a campaign to tackle the issue of modern slavery which chief executive Steve Murrells has described as ‘a blight on society’ which leaves people ‘stripped of their dignity’.

The campaign, which was created entirely in-house with no additional resource, had three objectives: it had to raise awareness of the issue; it needed to create paid job opportunities to help victims rebuild their lives; and, it needed to force the Government to change its policy and ensure that victims of modern slavery are supported for longer than the statutory 45 days.

The campaign, therefore, had many strands from job creation to lobbying to posters.

Working with charity City Hearts, the Co-op created an innovative Bright Future programme, which offers victims the opportunity to find paid employment. Dozens of former slaves have enjoyed four week paid work placements in the Co-op’s food business, which potentially lead to full-time positions.

But both organisations realised that, to truly tackle the issue, the programme needed support from others to create as many as 300 jobs every year. Working together, the Co-op and City hearts have gained support from a further 28 charities that work with victims and 20 businesses, including The Body Shop, Dixons Carphone and John Lewis.

The Co-op was also the only business to support Lord McCall’s Victims of Modern Slavery Bill, which looked to ensure that victims received support, such as housing, counselling and funding, for longer than the Government’s 45 day cut off.

The organisation wrote to its 4.6 million members, encouraging them to write to their MPs, urging they support the bill. It hosted a series of meetings at Westminster to raise awareness among policy makers and key opinion formers of the issue and the bill. And it worked with The Sun on a six week campaign Stamp out Slavery, which highlighted how people became enslaved and sectors, such as car washing services or nail bars, where they often work. The campaign supported the abolition of a 45 day deadline.

The Co-op also become the first corporate in the world to sign the Anti-Slavery International Charter against modern slavery. By adhering to the charter, the Co-op supports full transparency of its supply chain. Murrells has written to his counterparts at FTSE 100 companies encouraging them to follow suit.

Since its launch, there have been more than 40 items of coverage in the national and regional media and many broadcast articles about Bright Future. More importantly, the initiative as led to 100 vulnerable survivors getting a meaningful job and Bright Future is now the largest employee programme of its kind in the world. And in June, the Home Office abolished its 45 day policy in favour of one tailored to an individual’s needs.

The judges said the campaign was ‘quite simply, brilliant’, adding: ‘The initiative had a great brand fit – working well with the Co-op’s values. It also had real impact in the community and drove legislative change.’