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What does modern slavery look like?

The government, which introduced legislation banning modern slavery last year, thinks there may be up to 13,000 people held in modern slavery across the UK. But many believe this is a serious underestimate.

You may be surprised to hear slavery still exists, thinking it has long been abolished, but the truth is it never went away. Traditional versions of slavery have morphed into forced prostitution, cannabis farming and labour exploitation, which are now being seen in both “developing” and so-called “developed” countries.

Forced labour is one of the most common forms of modern slavery, and is found in many sectors across the UK, including agriculture, food production, construction, fishing and leisure and hospitality.

The issue of forced labour in the UK came to light more than 12 years ago, when 23 trafficked Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. They were trapped by sweeping tides while working illegally, picking cockles for hours on end to send money back to their families. At the time, there was widespread outrage, that this type of modern slavery could be happening here, in the UK. But if anything, more than a decade on from the tragedy, things are getting worse, not better with the latest government data suggesting that trafficking for labour exploitation is now more serious than trafficking for sexual exploitation. This pattern is repeated across many European countries.

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In the UK, forced labour has been able to infiltrate the supply chain, because many companies providing labour don’t have a ready supply of people themselves and prefer to hire labour from agencies, however informal. Many make use of a network of labour agencies they can hire people from. And those companies which provide labour (known as labour suppliers or gangmasters) in turn may have smaller, more informal companies who can provide people to them, often at short notice.

At the end of these labour supply chains, criminal gangs can easily operate relatively undetected. These gangs prey on people’s desire to improve their situation, deceiving them about the prospects of safe, well paid work in other countries. This, combined with worker’s often inadequate grasp of English or knowledge of their rights, creates an environment where they are vulnerable to exploitation.

You won’t see the chains because modern slavery doesn’t work like that. Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock

Because these gangs can move labour around cheaply and easily, vulnerable people can be transported across national borders. The gangs then force these people to work for them – withholding ID documents and threatening workers with violence – or sexual violence in the case of women whilst also making illegal deductions from wages and placing restrictions on workers’ mobility.

Widespread concern

This type of slavery is happening across all areas of the UK and in supply chains. One factory owner in Yorkshire was convicted after his bedding company was found to have been using a “slave workforce” of Hungarians paid as little as £10 a day for 16 hours work. Ethical audits from high street retailers purchasing their products, including John Lewis and Next had failed to spot the problem.

All over Britain, but particularly around the east of England and Scotland, forced labourers are used to harvest fruit and vegetables, much of which finds its way onto the shelves of well known high street brands.

Modern Slavery can take many forms. Kokliang/shutterstock

Recent information shared by one of my sources, a former head of quality assurance at a telecoms company (who wishes to remain anonymous), told me about a raid that took place on one of its UK suppliers. They found 50 men sleeping under benches, urinating into a bucket, with their pay and mobility restricted. He also told me about another company which was found to be employing child labour, right here, in a UK factory.

Another source recently revealed that one prominent budget hotel was being used as a brothel in the UK, for women trafficked from Africa into a nearby international airport. And a trading standards officer visiting a house in north-west England discovered a woman living there who had been held in domestic servitude for almost 15 years. This is now the subject of an ongoing serious case review in the local authority concerned.

New fears

While most companies are likely to be reputable, it must be asked how much do they know much about the companies to which they subcontract, or the companies their subcontractor subcontract to?

One new potential area for new investigation is music festivals. These events – which grow bigger and bigger every year both in terms of the size and attendance – hire many who do the dirty jobs on site including cleaning toilets and supplying food. At a recent national police meeting on Operation Gothic – one police operation that aims to tackle crime at events in the UK – I was told that police were investigating claims of forced labour at music festivals where those supplying labour did so using labour supply chains which were not carefully scrutinised.

Forced labour is most likely to occur where the informal sector meets the formal economy. Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Police across the UK are now becoming aware of the different types of forced labour, with many forces (but sadly not all) setting up programmes to train officers to spot the signs of trafficking. But this can be difficult, as these types of criminal gangs often close down operations and move into other fields if they discover they are under surveillance.

Putting a stop to forced labour here in the UK requires workers in all professions to know what modern slavery looks like. A start has been made with the Modern Slavery Act which requires larger companies to check their supply chains and confirm to their shareholders they are slavery free. But more still needs to be done, and freeing the UK from slavery should be everyone’s business now.

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