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Respecting human rights and preventing modern slavery

We respect and protect everyone’s rights and dignity

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What it's all about

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms every human being has simply because they exist. They include the right to life, respect for privacy and family life, freedom of thought or religion, and the right not to be subjected to modern slavery. 

At Serco we all have the basic right to be treated with respect and dignity and we want the place where we work and the services we provide to reflect this. 

We provide services that address some of the most complex social challenges facing governments. In much of what we do, we are looking after some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society. Operating with care and respect for human rights is fundamental to this. At Serco we just won’t allow any abuse of those rights or of the principles we set out in mycode that protect and respect those rights.

One area where we all need to be vigilant and all have a role to play involves modern slavery and human trafficking. It’s happening in every country, and it’s getting worse. There are more people living in slavery today than at any time in history. 

At Serco we will not tolerate, in any context, the use of servitude, child labour, forced labour, human trafficking, or slavery in our operations in any region in which we operate, or in any part of our global supply chain.

People whose rights are denied and abused may suffer mental and physical anguish and harm. Often their lives are ruined, and it undermines the trust that colleagues and those who rely on us have to be treated with respect and dignity.

We all stay vigilant! What our suppliers, third party relationships and customers do is our business.

“We won’t accept abuse of people or their rights, and we will not knowingly work with anyone who does. When we see it or suspect it, we’ll always Speak Up.”

What we all need to know and do

  • We respect and protect the dignity and human rights of our colleagues and everyone we deal with in our work. This includes those in our care, who use our services or work for our business partners or suppliers. 

  • We stay watchful. If we suspect any kind of human rights abuse, we speak up and report it straight away. We are all responsible for keeping our workplace free from abuse. 

  • We are especially alert to signs of modern slavery, forced or child labour. Tell-tale signs that someone is a victim of slavery include:

    • Physical appearance - victims will often be malnourished, have dirty, worn out clothes, or wear the same clothes again and again. They’ll look frightened, withdrawn and confused. And they may have injuries that seem to be the result of an assault.

    • Few or no personal possessions - victims almost always have no money or personal items like purses, wallets, or jewellery. They’ll have very few clothes and will often wear the same thing every day. And they’ll have no mobile phone, passport, or identification. 

    • No freedom of speech or movement - victims are warned not to speak. Others talk for them. They are always escorted, dropped off and picked up. They endure excessive work hours and have very limited social interaction.

    • Reluctant to seek help - those in slavery are often unable to speak the local language. They avoid eye contact, appear frightened or anxious, are afraid or refuse to talk, and reject help when it’s offered.

  • If you see the signs but aren’t sure, don’t try to get the person you think may be a victim to talk. That could put them at risk of harm. Instead report it. Tell your supervisor, manager, Human Resources or Ethics and Compliance Lead. You can also contact Speak Up. Do it straight away, even if you’re not sure. 

  • We only work with approved suppliers and business partners who have been subject to due diligence. 

  • We never knowingly take part in, or benefit from, any activities that break any law relating to human rights. 

  • We take the greatest care to ensure there is no human rights abuse, slave labour or human trafficking in any part of our operations including our supply chain. The key is for all of us to remain watchful and report any concerns.

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Things were going well, and our client gave us a big new piece of business. We’d been working with two suppliers - long relationships with both of them, and both very good. But we had to choose one for this new work.

I tried to smooth things with the supplier we didn’t choose, but he was obviously bitter about our decision. He got pretty upset and made a couple of wild accusations about his competitor. 

So about a week later when we started getting anonymous calls accusing the supplier we’d chosen of using child labour, I knew they were malicious, and the source was our disappointed supplier. 

It made me pretty angry - but a colleague said we couldn’t make any assumptions and we had to investigate. Otherwise we could be seen to be condoning child labour, and that could destroy our reputation. I was really reluctant - just thought it was a waste of all our time - but in the end I told him to go ahead and check it out.

It turned out I was right, and he was wrong - there was no truth in any of the allegations. So anyway, I thought I’d better go and see the accused supplier and make sure he wasn’t too upset. Here’s what he said to me:

“You know, I’m so glad you did investigate. I don’t just mean because it’s confirmed our innocence. I mean because it shows everyone - all the other suppliers - that Serco really means what it says in its Code of Conduct about ‘taking the greatest care to ensure there is no human rights abuse’. You’ve made quite a few people think that your standards have to be their standards.” 

Then he looked straight at me with such a knowing nod, and he said, ‘That can only be good for the children round here.’  

When I got back, I told my colleague that actually he was right, and I was wrong. When I didn’t want to, he had insisted that we ask the question, “Is this what we stand for?” 

We take the greatest care to ensure there is no human rights abuse, slave labour or human trafficking in any part of our operations including our supply chain. 

‘So, welcome to your first day on the job. 

You may have come here with all sorts of ideas about how everyone has rights and should expect fair treatment. So first thing - put all that stuff away. That’s for school kids. 

This is the real world. Some of the people we have to look after here are real hard cases. They can’t expect the same standards you’d give most human beings because you know, they’re not - they’re sub-human! 

Really, take it from me - they’re trouble. Give them an inch and they’ll walk all over you. Here we walk over them - got it?  

That means you let them know who’s boss straight up. Make a few examples - they’ll soon get the picture. There’s no one on the team who’s going to dob you in - know what I mean? And if, you know - you get out of order, take it a bit far … Here we back each other up - all the way.

Far as we’re concerned, you’ve got a free hand here.’ 

We respect and protect the dignity and human rights of our colleagues and
everyone we deal with in our work. 

This includes those in our care, who use our services or work for our
business partners or suppliers.

It was a few days after I’d arrived. I was still jet-lagged - you know, when you just feel really disoriented, and you realise the place you’ve come to is totally different from anything you’ve known before.  

Anyway, I met our agent. He seemed decent - had a lovely smile. I told him that the first thing I wanted to see was all our suppliers - just to see that things were in order. I remember - he gave me this kind of sideways look. And then that lovely smile. ‘Oh, everything is in perfect order!’ he said.

He started talking about how it was impossible to see these people without arrangements - every one was very very busy working hard for us, he had to call each one first. But I told him, no! No advance notice - I wanted him to drive me directly to each of them.

He drove me a particular route - ‘So you can see how things are in my country,’ he said. 

I’d never really seen poverty like that - whole families just living on the sides of the road. And so many children. 

Of course, he was preparing me.  When we got to the second supplier, I saw several children carrying jute sacks their own size on their backs. The manager there said they were from the local school - a day out for them, ‘earning pocket money.’  

I knew it wasn’t true. Those children were being used for cheap labour. I told the agent that even though it wasn’t illegal here, this was entirely unacceptable. He became so passionate, pleading with me.

‘Without the children there is no future here,” he explained. ‘If the children work, their families can live. If you take their jobs away, they will die. That’s the way it is here.’

I had to report it, of course, and we stopped doing business with the supplier. But I sometimes wonder if I should have just turned a blind eye - and whether, without those jobs, people did die. 

At Serco we will not tolerate, in any context, the use of servitude, child labour, forced labour, human trafficking, or slavery in our operations in any region in which we operate, or in any part of our global supply chain.

I’d been in the new job about a month when Nia came in. I happened to look up, and saw she had a black eye. ‘Nia, what’s happened?’ I asked.

‘My bicycle,’ she said. ‘Someone almost drove into me, and I fell off.’ 

I remember the room was quiet - nobody spoke, nobody looked up. And Nia walked on through to the Ladies.

That was it - nothing else happened. Until the next time. A great bruise across her cheek bone. I wanted to ask her about it, but it seemed like that wasn’t the thing to do - no one else did, though I saw the looks people gave each other.

That’s why I just kept quiet. Until the next time. She came in with a broken arm. I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ So I wrote a note asking her if she wanted to talk.  

She wrote a note back. ‘I’m fine. Please stop bothering me.’ 

I couldn’t leave it alone - it was so obvious she was the victim of domestic violence. At lunch I cornered a colleague. ‘Look, she’s made it clear - it’s a private matter and she doesn’t want any of us interfering. Just leave it alone.’

So I did.  But I don’t know - was that right?

We take care of each other.

They told me there was work. They said they would arrange everything - travel, documents, expenses.

Two men were waiting when I arrived. They were smiling. We waited for three others - all had come to work, like me.

We travelled in a van. I didn’t know where we were going. Everything was strange to me - a country I did not know, a language I could not speak. I kept asking. One of the men said, ‘Wait, and you’ll see.’ And they laughed. 

We got to the place. There were old caravans. And everywhere rubbish and filth. They asked for our passports. ‘To fill in the necessary forms,’ they said. 

There were other men. They seemed so tired, so thin. All of them, every one, looked only at the ground in front of his own feet. I saw their shoes - broken, old. 
Then he came in his car. A big, beautiful car. He had a rich man’s coat. He said we owed him money, that we must work to pay him back. He told one of the thin men to come to him. Then he tore off the man’s shirt, showed us his back. It was blue and black where they had hit him. 

Then man in the coat turned to us. ‘If you try to run away, this is what will happen to you,’ he said. ‘And if you try a second time, we will kill you. Understand, until you have paid me the money you owe me, you are my property.’

We cannot pay the money. We work but they take all we earn. 

They bring us to work and take us back each day. Travel expenses they say. They give us rotten cabbages and potatoes and old bacon fat. Food expenses, they say. We live in the freezing caravans. Rent, they say.  

When we are at work we must not speak. We must try to be invisible. 

Unless you see us, we have no way out. We are slaves. 

We take the greatest care to ensure there is no human rights abuse, slave labour or human trafficking in any part of our operations including our supply chain. The key is for all of us to remain watchful and report any concerns.

There are things going on here that you don’t want to know about. Like the men that are brought onto the site each morning - they’re all from one country. They don’t understand you when you speak to them - so no one bothers. 

And there are rumours about what’s happened to some of the women. But no one’s actually made accusations. 

And other stuff. But no one says anything. Why be the one to put your neck on the line? It’ll just get you into trouble. It’s not your responsibility anyway.

It’s better not to turn over any stones. Just do your job - and take your pay home each week. 

We are all responsible for keeping our workplace free from abuse.

I had to work late that week - which was why I started to see what they don’t want you to see. 

It was around midnight, and I went to get some coffee. The building was empty - just two cleaners. A man and a woman - not from round here. 

The woman was nearest, so I asked her if she and her colleague would like something to drink. She shook her head, not looking at me. But I saw what was in her eyes. And the man too - he was staring at us - and I saw the same thing. Fear.

It didn’t make sense - why should they be scared? So I looked again. One of the woman’s shoes was held together by duct-tape. And though the man was painfully thin, his clothes under the plastic apron were way too small for him. 

My first thought was, ‘Maybe they’re illegal immigrants.’ And my second was, ‘Just don’t get involved. You report them and they’ll be sent back to some nightmare they’ve escaped from.’ 

What I didn’t realise was that their nightmare was happening here - right in front of me ...

The cleaners were there again the next night. Both tried to stay clear of me - except when the man came to empty the paper bins nearby. His shirt didn’t fit, so it didn’t quite cover the red marks that ran across his shoulder and neck - almost like someone had beaten him. 

I was worried then and wondered if I ought to do something. But what? I decided I was just imagining things. Looking back, the truth is, I just didn’t want any hassle. 

A couple of days went by, and I pretty much forgot about it. Then on the Friday I was in again, working late - and so were they. I waited until they’d finished. Then watched them walking out into the car park. 

There was a van waiting for them. A man got out, opened the back doors so they could put their equipment inside. He started shouting at them, I don’t know why. Suddenly he pushed the thin man’s head into the door - really violently. Then he turned on the woman, punched her in the stomach not just once - but three, four times. 

Then they got into the van and it drove off. 

After I saw the way that man beat those two cleaners, I didn’t know what to do. We were in the probationary phase of an important new contract with a client who definitely didn’t want to see any problems. What if reporting what I’d seen would get us closed down?

I remember standing in the bathroom staring into the mirror, and then heard myself saying, ‘It’s none of my business, is it?’ Which is when I realised that of course it was my business. And my company’s business. And the business of all of us. 

Next day I spoke to my manager. Straight away she said, ‘Thank god you told me! We are going to find out who is using those poor people and we’re going to do everything we can to put them in gaol.’

I suggested I could try to get the cleaners to talk, but she said that would risk putting them in serious danger. So she brought an anti-slavery expert in, and then the police, and we also started our own investigations. 

It turned out that the agent who had arranged the rental of the building had an “arrangement” with a criminal gang to service all premises on his books. The gang were using migrants - terrorising them. I saw the photographs of where they were living. It was like hell. 

In the end the gang was convicted. There were over 150 victims involved. What pleased me most is that the leaders each got eleven years behind bars. 

And both those brave cleaners were among the thirty nine people who testified in court against them.

We stay watchful. If we suspect any kind of human rights abuse, we Speak Up
and report it straight away.

The best estimate is that today, right now, at least three times the entire number that were transported on the slave ships are living in slavery around the world - more than at any time in history.

40 million men, women and children. Tricked, coerced, abused, kidnapped or sold - and forced to work against their will. Living in fear. Seeing no way out. Exploited, threatened and dehumanised by their ‘owners’ - who profit from their labour, and trade them like commodities. 

It’s happening in every country, and it’s getting worse. Since 2013, modern slavery figures have increased by a third. And they’re still going up. 

It’s the vulnerable who are exploited. Victims deceived by criminal gangs. Those in desperate need of work. Families too poor to support themselves. Migrants in lands far from home where they have few rights and little grasp of the language. 

Millions are enslaved in their own countries. Others are trafficked abroad. All end up in misery - forced to work wherever and however their ‘owners’ can make money from them. Prostitution. Domestic work. Mines, factories, agriculture. 

And despite best efforts and strict policies, they can - and do - become part of the supply chains that reputable businesses around the world unwittingly use day to day …

The slave owners and criminal gangs who infiltrate into legitimate organisations almost always do so via a supplier, sub-contractor, agency, intermediary or rogue supervisor. 

They depend on the silence of their victims - which is why they threaten and terrorise them so they are too afraid to talk. 

They also depend on invisibility - which is why they ruthlessly control their victims, taking them to and from work, speaking on their behalf, housing them in abject conditions out of public view, withholding wages, placing them in impossible debt and taking away their passports or ID. 

But above all they depend on our ignorance. They succeed because most of us don’t know the tell-tale signs. If we did, and we each acted when we saw them, we could bring the slavers down - and end this vile trade …

Seven signs that I’m a slave:

  1. I’m poorly clothed because they keep me in debt.

  2. I can’t always hide the beatings I get.

  3. I feel fearful, hopeless, ashamed - disgraced.

  4. I dare not look you in the face.

  5. If you smile at me, I shall turn away.

  6. If you speak to me, I shall have nothing to say.

  7. I look ill, hungry, defeated, scared - I am a slave.

If you think someone may be a victim, don’t try to press them. Tell a manager or contact Speak Up. Report it straight away, even if you’re not sure.

We are especially alert to signs of modern slavery, forced or child labour.
The key is for all of us to remain watchful

Raise a concern

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What happens if we don’t follow mycode?

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Speak Up

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Discover more...

Staying safe, keeping well

Our vision is Zero Harm – no one harmed by the work we do.

Respecting our differences

Creating a workplace where everyone matters.

Fair treatment

We treat each other fairly and provide equal opportunities.

Coming to work free from substance abuse

We always come to work in a fit state to do our job.

No bullying, harassment or violence

We never bully, intimidate or act violently.

Hiring government officials and competitor employees

We never use someone else’s confidential information to gain an unfair competitive advantage.

Looking after our environment and climate

We are committed to addressing the environmental and climate emergencies.