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Slavery is a practice that is illegal throughout the world. It was made illegal in Great Britain in 1833; however, it is a practice that is still being perpetrated in the UK, nearly 200 years after abolition.
Modern slavery involves the exploitation of people and can present in many forms, making it difficult to recognise. A victim is usually used and exploited for someone else’s gain, without respect for their human rights and involving some element of coercion, such as threats, use of force, deception or abuse of power so that the victim performs acts or services against their will.
What is modern slavery?
Modern slavery is a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The term encompasses:
- Dehumanising a person.
- Forcing someone to work against their will.
- Restricting someone’s freedom of movement.
- Treating someone as a commodity or property.
- Defining a person as owned or controlled by another.
It is a crime that affects some of the most vulnerable in society. It is often hidden from view and many of the victims of modern slavery do not self-identify, making it difficult to assess its scale and to calculate the number of victims directly.
Modern slavery is a complex crime that covers all forms of slavery, trafficking and exploitation. Trafficking includes transporting, recruiting or harbouring an individual with a view to them being exploited. Modern slavery crimes may involve, or take place alongside, a wide range of abuses and other criminal offences such as grievous bodily harm, assault, rape or child sexual abuse.
There is an internationally recognised process for defining human trafficking – the Palermo Protocol – which includes three aspects which must be present for a trafficking crime to have been committed. However, for those under the age of 18 years, only the “action” and “purpose” are required, as children cannot give consent to being exploited regardless of whether they are aware and agree.
These aspects are:
- The action: Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.
- The means: Threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person.
- The purpose: The definition of exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.
Who is vulnerable to modern slavery?
Olympian Sir Mo Farrah shocked the nation when he revealed that he had been a victim of modern slavery when he was child trafficked into the UK and forced into domestic servitude. Sir Mo’s story is not unique; thousands of men, women and children in the UK are coerced into exploitation and slavery every year.
Poverty, lack of education, unstable social and political conditions, economic imbalances, climate change and war are key issues that contribute to someone’s vulnerability in becoming a victim of modern slavery. Whatever their backstory, the victims’ aspirations of finding a better life turn sour as they all live lives of fear, debt and drudgery in exhausting, ill-paid or bonded, dangerous and degrading work, with escape impossible, forbidden or punished.
There is no typical victim of modern slavery. Victims of modern slavery can be men, women and children of any age across the world.
Although it is impossible to know the exact number of victims, the latest Home Office statistical information on the number of potential victims of modern slavery referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) or via the Duty to Notify (DtN) process in 2021 show that:
- 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office in 2021, representing a 20% increase compared to the preceding year (10,601).
- Of all referrals, 50% (6,411) were for potential victims who claimed exploitation as adults (compared to 48% in 2020), whilst 43% (5,468) claimed exploitation as children. The age group at exploitation was unknown in 7% of cases (848).
- Overall, 77% (9,790) were male and 23% (2,923) were female. For adult potential victims, 75% (4,812) were male and 25% (1,594) were female; whilst for child potential victims, 79% (4,314) were male and 21% (1,145) were female.
- In the UK just under half of referrals to the NRM (47%) were individuals who claimed they were exploited as children.
- Referrals for criminal exploitation only accounted for 33% (4,155) of all referrals.
- The most common nationalities referred in 2021 were UK, Albanian and Vietnamese.
But these figures may be the tip of the iceberg as they refer only to those referred to the UK authorities.
There is an assumption that victims of modern slavery are trafficked to the UK from other countries, but residents of the UK are also among the victims that are exploited in the UK.
It is true that many victims have been trafficked from overseas, frequently from eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa, their exploitation beginning en route as the criminals exert control, confiscating their identity documents and “bonding” them as payment for their journey to the UK and ongoing living expenses. There are also concerns that as more Ukrainian refugees arrive in the UK, things could get worse, as exploiters take advantage of a new source of vulnerable people.
However, there are many British victims who tend to have fallen on difficult times, who live in deprivation, or who have physical or mental health issues, making them vulnerable to the enticement of supposed well-paid work, which is a lie. They then find themselves trapped, for example, in the sex industry, “county lines” or other forms of criminal activities.
Types of slavery today
Modern slavery exists in many forms in the UK, including trafficking into criminal activities.
There are five main types of exploitation that victims of modern slavery may experience:
- Labour exploitation – Victims are forced to work for nothing, low wages or a wage that is kept by their owner; work is involuntary, forced and/or under the threat of a penalty; and the working conditions can be poor.
- Sexual exploitation – Victims are exploited through non-consensual abuse or another person’s sexuality for the purpose of sexual gratification, financial gain, personal benefit or advantage, or any other non-legitimate purpose.
- Domestic servitude – Victims are domestic workers who perform a range of household tasks, for example, cooking and cleaning; some live with their employers and have low pay, if any at all.
- Criminal exploitation – Victims are forced to work under the control of criminals in activities such as forced begging, shoplifting, pickpocketing, cannabis cultivation, drug dealing and financial exploitation.
- Organ harvesting – Living or deceased victims are recruited, transported or transferred, by threat or force for money, for their organs.
The Home Office has published a typology of modern slavery offences, which breaks these exploitation types down further.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 made the UK the first country in the world to require organisations to publicly report on the steps that they are taking to prevent modern slavery which exists in complex supply chains and is hidden from sight. For example, fashion is one of the most labour-dependent industries in the world.
This has led the fashion industry to become the second-largest sector, after technology, to support modern slavery. From the pickers harvesting the cotton to the yarn spinners and the workers manufacturing the garments, slavery and exploitation exists at all stages in the making of our clothes.
Across the garment and textile industry, exploitation includes:
- Forced labour.
- Little or no pay.
- Paying in order to maintain employment.
- Working long hours and being locked into factories.
- Lack of, or inadequate, contracts.
- Lack of workers’ rights, including the right to organise and bargain collectively.
- Lack of social benefits such as healthcare, sick pay or pensions.
Due to the complex nature of the industry’s supply chain, visibility beyond the first tier is difficult, and this poses issues for businesses and consumers alike. Whilst modern slavery is present the world over, some countries have higher rates than others.
The Global Slavery Index highlights high-risk countries, for example India, China, Thailand and Bangladesh, and found that G20 countries collectively import US$354 billion worth of products at risk of being produced by modern slavery per annum. The UK imports £18bn of goods at risk of being produced through forced labour annually.
It is important to keep your eyes peeled for any public concerns raised surrounding suppliers and retailers. Any UK business found to be connected to modern slavery, even inadvertently, may risk coming under massive public scrutiny.
Signs that someone could be a victim of modern slavery
We all have a part to play in helping to eradicate modern slavery. We can all start by learning to spot the signs of modern slavery and exploitation. It could be happening in your workplace or in your community.
Some of the general signs of modern slavery include, but are not limited to:
Isolation – the person:
- Is rarely allowed to travel on their own.
- Appears to be under the control of others.
- Tends not to interact with other people.
- Seems unfamiliar with their neighbourhood or where they work.
- Has relationships which don’t seem right, for example, a young teenager appearing to be the boyfriend/girlfriend of a much older adult.
Restricted freedom of movement – the person:
- Doesn’t have documents that would allow them to travel such as passport, ID, etc.
- Has limited opportunities to move freely.
- Has few personal possessions.
- Works unusually long hours.
Physical appearance – the person:
- Shows signs of physical or psychological abuse, such as untreated injuries, anxiety, agitation or appearing to be withdrawn and neglected.
- Looks malnourished or unkempt.
- Wears the same clothes day in, day out.
- Wears clothes that are unsuitable for their work.
Unusual travel arrangements – the person:
- Is always being dropped off at and collected from work; and very early in the morning or late at night.
- Children are dropped off and picked up in private cars or taxis at unusual times and in places where it isn’t clear why they’d be there.
Poor living conditions – the person:
- Is living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded accommodation.
- Is working and living at the same address.
Reluctance to seek help – the person:
- Avoids eye contact.
- Appears frightened, or hesitant to talk to strangers.
- Fears law enforcers.
- Fears deportation.
- Is unsure who to trust or where to get help.
- Fears violence to themselves or their family.
Indications that someone is being exploited for their labour might include:
- They do not have a contract, are paid less than the National Minimum Wage, or are not paid at all.
- Lack protective equipment, suitable clothing or training to safely do their job.
- Afraid to accept money or payment.
- Forced to stay in accommodation provided by their employer; this may be overcrowded.
- Their legitimate wages may be taken by an exploiter who is outside of the business or workplace.
Indications that someone is being exploited sexually might include:
- They may appear scared, intimidated, frightened, withdrawn or confused.
- They are “branded” with a tattoo indicating ownership.
- They have limited English vocabulary, restricted to sexualised words.
- They are unable to keep payments and have restricted or no access to their earnings.
- Sleeping at the premises where they work could indicate a brothel is operating.
- Male visitors call day and night and only stay for a short time.
- Signs of physical abuse, including bruising, scarring and cigarette burns.
- There are signs of sexual activity, such as cards and advertisements nearby.
Indications that someone is being exploited criminally might include:
- A large group of adult or child beggars being moved daily to different locations but returned to the same one at night could indicate forced begging.
- Being transported to or from the scene of a crime, including shoplifting, pickpocketing or forced begging.
- Being forced to cultivate cannabis or being forced or manipulated out of their home by drug dealers, who use the home as a base to sell drugs (cuckooed).
- Their freedom of movement may be restricted, including being locked in a room.
- Commonly they don’t speak English, or have limited vocabulary.
- Young people and children being enticed or forced to carry and sell drugs across county borders.
- Not benefiting from money or items obtained through crimes they have been forced to commit.
Indications that a child is being exploited might include:
- Failing to attend school.
- Going missing at night or weekends and not being clear about their whereabouts.
- Having gifts, presents or expensive items which they can’t explain.
- Mood swings, including being angry, upset or withdrawn.
- Inappropriate sexual behaviour.
- Dressing inappropriately for their age.
Where does modern slavery happen?
Almost 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery worldwide, and no region of the world is spared from modern slavery. It is a problem in the UK, where many people experience human trafficking, bonded labour and forced labour.
Seasonal industries in the UK are a hotbed of modern slavery due to the temporary nature of work.
Some such industries include:
Seasonal working, modern-day slavery and labour exploitation is becoming a growing concern in the agricultural industry. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) have written a report, concluding the agricultural industry to be a high-risk sector for exploitation and abuse of seasonal workers, including poor wages and working conditions.
In 2021, construction accounted for more than 20% of incidences of labour exploitation reported to anti-slavery charity Unseen’s helpline. There are many reasons why labour abuse and exploitation occur in the mainstream construction sector.
- Widespread use of sub-contracted labour and high turnover of workers. This means it’s difficult for the actual employer to ensure workers are being paid correctly and are not working under duress.
- Industry reliance on self-regulation, which risks the rules being abused.
- Pressure on costs and schedules, which can push employers into cutting corners.
- Long, complex supply chains which inhibit transparency and create a culture of disinterest and a lack of accountability.
According to Victim Support:
- 7% of reported trafficking victims in the UK are victims of domestic servitude. This involves a victim being forced to work in private households performing domestic chores and childcare duties. Their freedom may be restricted and they may work long hours often for little or no pay, and sleep where they work.
- 23% of reported trafficking victims in the UK are victims of sexual exploitation. This includes sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, forced prostitution and the abuse of children for the production of child abuse images/videos.
- 26% of potential victims of modern slavery reported to have been exploited in the UK are subject to forced labour. It can happen in various industries, including construction, manufacturing, laying driveways, hospitality, food packaging, agriculture, maritime and beauty, for example nail bars. Often victims are housed together in one dwelling and may be forced to work long hours for little or no pay in poor conditions with verbal or physical threats of violence to them or their families.
Other forms of exploitation in the UK include:
Help and support available
The National Referral Mechanism is a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. The Home Office has responsibility for all areas of the NRM, including referrals, decision-making and data collection. Referrals into the NRM can only be made by selected agencies known as “first responders”.
- Police forces.
- Certain parts of the Home Office such as UK Visas and Immigration, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement.
- National Crime Agency (NCA).
- Local authorities.
- Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) 0800 432 0804.
- Salvation Army referral helpline 0800 808 3733.
- Migrant Help helpline: 0808 8010 503.
- Medaille Trust 0800 06 999 16.
- Kalayaan 020 7243 2942.
- Barnardo’s 0800 008 7005 Barnardo’s National Counter-Trafficking Service 0800 043 4303 for hands-on support.
- Unseen 08000 121 700.
- NSPCC (CTAC).
- BAWSO 0800 7318147.
- New Pathways 01685 379310.
- Refugee Council 08081967272.
Adults in England and Wales who are recognised as potential victims of modern slavery through the NRM have access to specialist tailored support for a period of at least 45 days while their case is considered, which may include:
- Access to relevant legal advice.
- Independent emotional and practical help.
A potential victim of modern slavery is a potential victim of a crime. All NRM referrals should be referred to the police by calling 101, either by the victim or on the victim’s behalf if they give consent, or as a third-party referral if they don’t give consent, provided this does not breach any obligation of confidence under the common law.
If you suspect modern slavery or are a victim of modern slavery, you can also report it to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.
You will get through to a trained adviser who can help you with a range of options, including:
- Helping you or someone else get access to support services.
- Reporting something you have seen or are concerned about.
- Advice about abuse, exploitation or modern slavery.
Victims of modern slavery can also contact victim support free on 0808 168 9111
In an emergency always call 999.
Modern slavery can happen anywhere in any situation. Each case is different and may not fit a stereotype, and the signs of forced labour and criminal or sexual exploitation can be very different. Eradicating it relies on people reporting it to the authorities. If you think modern slavery is happening, tell someone as soon as you think it is safe to.
Modern slavery is a crime under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Those found guilty of a Modern Slavery Act offence face legal prosecution and could ultimately receive a life sentence.