Fifteen former victims of human trafficking are today working anonymously within Co-op Food and a further 19 hope to join soon as part of a groundbreaking programme to tackle Modern Slavery launched by the Co-op two years ago. It is the first major business to offer work placements to victims of modern slavery.
The Bright Future programme was launched shortly after The Co-op started to prepare its first Modern Slavery statement, in accordance with Government legislation, when it swiftly realised that this was a cause that required more than just box ticking. It was a cause that required The Co-op to take action.
It was also a cause that resonated with the 155-year-old co-operative organisation. Several founders of the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1863 had been among the Lancashire signatories supporting the North's blockade of the South's ports during the American civil war just one year earlier. It was an extraordinary gesture, described by Abraham Lincoln as an act of 'sublime Christian heroism'. Lancashire had previously imported three quarters of all cotton grown on the southern plantations, and the move left many of the county's weavers out of work and destitute.
Corporate PR manager Dave Smith explains such heritage meant that 'we had to look at how we could do more'.
The first step was to understand the issue, and the Co-op partnered with Liverpool-based charity City Hearts. More than 3,800 victims of modern slavery were recorded in the UK in 2016, although it has been estimated that there are as many as 13,000 victims of human trafficking in the country. Those that are rescued are usually placed in safe houses by local charities, who attempt to help them rebuild their lives. 'There is a lot of work to do,' says Smith. 'They have no passports, no visas, no paperwork. They have been forced to work, and sometimes even coerced into illegal activity.' Police raiding a cannabis farm initially arrested those involved, before realising they were all slaves. 'It is complex web,' he adds.
The Bright Future Programme offers four weeks' paid work experience to victims of modern slavery, who then have a non-competitive job interview for a role within a store or in the depot. If they are successful and a role is available, they will be offered a job. 'We are not doing this out of charity,' says Smith. 'These are not second class employees.' Both sides have to be confident that they will be able to perform their roles, particularly as - once in situ - they will not receive any favourable treatment. 'We have to be very careful about their identities. If they are found, they could be dragged back. Only their store manager or their warehouse manager will know their true identity.'
It is currently rolling out the programme across the country, and recently partnered with Sheffield-based charity Snowdrop Project, which offers long-term community support to empower survivors of human trafficking. 'Normally, if an organisation wants to launch an initiative like this, it will partner with a national charity,' says Smith. But with no national charity in this space, the Co-op is seeking other local charities to work with.
The Co-op learned very early on that the key to the success of the programme is flexibility. 'HR processes tend to be very rigid, particularly in organisations like ours that employ 70,000 people. For example, potential recruits might need a passport, relevant paperwork, bank details and two references before they are employed,' says Smith. 'There has to be an acceptance, which is driven from the top, that HR needs to be more flexible in these situations.'
It also became clear early on that, while some people complete the four week programme, others need more time. 'We couldn't be too rigid. Some are extremely fragile and have low esteem. They may need more time or more support,' says Smith. But what is clear, however, is that they all want to work. Indeed, many fell victim when friends already in the UK lured them with a promise of a job. But the Co-op also recognises that not everybody will want to work within food retail.
'We can only provide a retail solution, but they may not want to work in that area. They might want to work on a building site, say,' explains Smith. The Co-op is currently sharing its insights from the programme with 13 other organisations, including BP, Tesco and The Body Shop, who recently attended a Parliamentary Round Table, hosted by Frank Field MP, on the subject. 'They might not do [such an initiative] the way we have done,' says Smith. 'But we are trying to help by explaining the reasons we have done this, how we have done this and what we have learned.'