New laws protect workforces within NHS supply chains around the world

Modern Slavery Act 2015 for England and Wales introduces anti-slavery laws to protect workers both in the UK and internationally

NHS procurement activities will now be subject to increased legislation protecting workforces within supply chains around the world.

The British Medical Association (BMA) this week welcomed new powers set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for England and Wales, which will introduce anti-slavery laws to protect workers both in the UK and internationally.

If major suppliers of healthcare goods strive to ensure fair and ethical practices in the manufacture of their products, then the potential impact on global supply chains is vast

MBA chairman, Mark Porter, said: “The BMA is pleased that the Government has legislated within this act to encourage transparency in the supply chains of medical goods and imports.

“If major suppliers of healthcare goods strive to ensure fair and ethical practices in the manufacture of their products, then the potential impact on global supply chains is vast.

“The BMA is at the forefront of campaigning for ethical trade in the NHS. There is an uncomfortable paradox in providing healthcare in the NHS at the expense of workers’ health in its supply chains.”

The BMA had previously called on the Government to broaden the scope of legislation and to include requirements for transparency in supply chains of medical goods and equipment.

The act, which was granted royal assent on 26 March, will see the creation of an independent anti-slavery commissioner, as well as strengthening existing laws by:

  • Introducing life sentences for those guilty of the most-serious trafficking and slavery offences
  • Tougher asset confiscation for those convicted of slavery or trafficking
  • The creation of trafficking and slavery risk and prevention orders aimed at restricting the actions of individuals likely to cause harm
  • Ensuring the protection of victims of slavery from criminalisation through a statutory defence

The introduction of the new laws comes after a report from the BMA and Swedish campaign group, SwedWatch, found that where social criteria for NHS procurement had been introduced, it produced tangible results.

There is an uncomfortable paradox in providing healthcare in the NHS at the expense of workers’ health in its supply chains

The Healthier Procurement report followed a research trip to Pakistan to see whether improvements in working conditions hadbeen instigated since social criteria were embedded into NHS Supply Chain procurement contracts for surgical instruments.

The findings showed that conditions at factories had improved, as had conditions at the subcontractors working for exporting factories. But, for many workshops where no social requirements was mandated, there was little change since manufacturing conditions within the industry were first reported on in 2006, the study found.

Among its several recommendations, the report said that the decisive factor in awarding contracts should not only be price, but ought to include a suppliers’ sustainability performance.

And it said the Labour Standards Assurance System (LSAS) should be broadened to require all suppliers to continually report on progress and allow audits of any approved supplier.

We need all of those in healthcare, on the work floor, in management, and in industry, to do their bit to further support the change we have started to see

Dr Mahmood Bhutta, founder of the BMA Medical and Ethical Fair Trade Group, said a significant proportion of the surgical instruments that reach healthcare providers in the UK are manufactured in Sialkot in Pakistan.

“Our recent factory visits were evidence that the work we have been doing in the UK, and with our partners in Sweden, is having a real impact on the lives of workers in the surgical instrument sector in Pakistan,” he said.

“Conditions have vastly improved, the prohibition of child labour is now strictly enforced, wages are paid in accordance with the minimum wage, and employees are not forced to work overtime.”

However, he added that where no social criteria are required in the procurement process, there had been little change.

“We need all of those in healthcare, on the work floor, in management, and in industry, to do their bit to further support the change we have started to see,” he said.

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