High Court gives go ahead in modern slavery challenge to government procurement process
Date posted: 19 May 2022
The NGO All the Citizens, represented by Wilson Solicitors LLP, have been granted permission by the High Court to challenge the Government’s procurement processes in relation to modern slavery.
Yesterday the High Court granted permission for All the Citizens to proceed with a legal challenge to the Government’s procurement decision last year with the PPE supplier Supermax Healthcare Limited, the UK-based subsidiary of the Malaysian Supermax Corporation- one of the world’s largest rubber glove manufacturers. Workers at Supermax factories have detailed their experiences of debt bondage, physical abuse and forced labour whilst working at Supermax.
The decision made in December 2021 by NHS Supply Chain was part of a tender process worth £6 billion of UK taxpayer money. The decision to award a place to Supermax came despite the US banning imports from the Malaysian glove manufacturer, following an investigation which identified 10 out of 11 forced labour indicators present within the operations and practices of the Supermax Corporation. Officials at the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (“BEIS”) had also launched an investigation into Supermax after the issue was raised in the House of Lords in October 2021. Wilson Solicitors LLP had also written to the UK authorities March 2021, notifying them of the use of forced labour in Malaysian glove factories and particularly issues at the Supermax Corporation. We outlined domestic and international laws which specifically prohibit the use of modern slavery in the Government’s supply chains and yet their subsequent actions appear to fall well short of these.
Proceedings were issued by Wilson Solicitors LLP on behalf of All the Citizens in January this year. NHS Supply Chain have responded by outlining future plans for audits of Supermax, however that does not replace their legal duties for appropriate due diligence before making the decision to award. At the core of the case is that these authorities failed to verify the information provided by the company in relation to its modern slavery standards in the face of mounting evidence against it. These actions undermine the authorities claim that they take issues of forced labour seriously within their procurement processes.
Nusrat Uddin, the lead Partner in this matter, said:
We expected that the due diligence, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms would ensure that serious concerns around labour standards, would be effectively addressed. We have not been satisfied by the government authorities’ response. The legal requirements are clear that there should be real verification of suppliers before the award stage, but it is not clear that these necessities have been met. It is inadequate for the government to carry out due diligence after the award stage, their
approach undermines the UK’s claims that they are world leading in the fight against modern slavery and highlights the weakness in their own legislation, policies and practices.
The High Court’s order outlines that there is an arguable claim of a grave breach of public law obligations against the relevant government departments. The High Court have thus granted permission for the case to proceed to a full judicial review hearing. Whilst the decision is only the first stage of these legal proceedings, it is extremely significant as this is the first case in the English courts to consider issues of modern slavery in the Government’s own procurement processes.
Clara Maguire from All the Citizens said:
We are extremely pleased that the Court has recognised our positon as an NGO with potential standing to bring such a legal challenge. We are seriously concerned with the government’s response during the pandemic and how procurement contracts were awarded, particularly PPE. It’s crucial that courts recognise the role that organisations like ours play in holding the state to account and exposing issues such as those raised in this case. Without this there would not be any challenge to such arguably unlawful actions of the state and the flagrant misuse of public funds.
The case has been covered in the news and on radio: