Hidden in plain sight, the face of modern slavery

June 1, 2017

 (Photo cred: Times Higher Education)

 

Slavery, as an institution, was abolished by most countries over a century ago, but bonded and forced labour, trafficking and exploitation persist in almost all parts of the globe, including the United Kingdom. About 150 years after most countries banned slavery – Brazil was the last to abolish its participation in the transatlantic slave trade, in 1888 – millions of men, women and children are still enslaved. Contemporary slavery takes many forms; from women forced into prostitution to child slavery in agriculture supply chains or whole families working for nothing to pay off generational debts. Slavery thrives on every continent and in almost every country. Forced labour, people trafficking, debt bondage and child marriage are all forms of modern-day slavery that affect the world's most vulnerable people. Although slavery is illegal in every country in the modern world, it still exists, and even on the narrowest definition of slavery it's likely that there are far more slaves now than there were victims of the Atlantic slave trade but the problem, particularly in Western developed countries, is hidden from view.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted in his forward for a study into the extent of slavery in Britain: ‘Slavery…I didn’t know about all these forms that existed. I think it’s largely because we aren’t expecting it. It is hidden. Generally people would not believe that it is possible under modern conditions. They would say, “No, I

think you are making it all up,” because it is just too incredible…’

 (Contemporary slavery in the UK G. Craig et al. Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2007)

 

Many people are unaware that slavery continues to exist in the modern world and that forms of slavery are common within this country. All of them exhibit the common elements of the exploitative relationship which has always constituted slavery: severe economic exploitation; the absence of a framework of human rights; and control of one person over another by the prospect or reality of violence. Over a decade ago the Yorkshire Post highlighted the sobering fact that slavery in the UK often comes to light only when a crisis occurs, such as the deaths of 23 Chinese workers, drowned while cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay. In 2004 hundreds of Chinese illegal immigrants under the control of criminal gangmasters would cockle pick in dangerous conditions completely alien to them. There had been "two or three" near misses in the Hest Bank area, Mike Guy from the RNLI said, before crews were called out on 5 February 2004 to be met by a "sea of bodies". The situation of the Chinese men and women once they had arrived in the United Kingdom was not untypical of slavery – they were brought into the country illegally and then had their documents taken away from them, thus becoming both illegal immigrants, and at the same time, dependent on the agents who managed them. They were told that if they reported their situation to the police or immigration authorities, they would be deported. If they did protest, their families in China would be threatened with violence. They were kept in appalling conditions in a small house in Liverpool and transported every evening to their place of work. They worked long hours for little pay and were "supervised" constantly by thugs. They knew little English and were therefore, unaware of their rights, and unable to call on anyone to help them.  (The Yorkshire Post. 23rd February 2007)

 

Following on from this a private member's bill was introduced into parliament and legislation soon followed which saw the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) in 2006. The organisation was set up to protect vulnerable workers in the shell fish, agriculture, food and food packaging labour markets but MPs and academics are still campaigning for it to be given a wider remit and more extensive powers. Despite greater awareness of the existence of trafficking and modern day slavery and the creation of additional legal instruments to tackle it, in particular the Modern Slavery Act 2015, real change is proving slow and hard to achieve. For example research led by Durham University in 2013 found evidence that the numbers of people trafficked for labour exploitation would soon exceed those brought to the country for

sexual exploitation. Professor Gary Craig who led the research told the BBC that; "People tend to think that slavery is something to do with faraway countries with poor human rights records. Well, actually, slavery is here and now in the UK and the research which I've done with colleagues suggests there may be upwards of 10,000 people at any one time in the UK in conditions which we would class as modern slavery." (Andrew Glover BBC News online 5th February 2014)  Recent statistics by the National Crime Agency (NCA) published in its 2014 report on human trafficking back this up. The report highlighted that 2,744 people had been identified by the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) as having been potential victims of trafficking for exploitation, with more than 600 of those children — a rise of 22 per cent on 2012. They came from the UK, Eastern European countries such as Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Albania and Lithuania, as well as from Nigeria and South-East Asia. The number of British children who were being trafficked was found to have risen threefold in just a year: 128 potential victims were reported in 2013, compared with 38 in 2012. But the reality is that we do not know how many children have been trafficked into, or inside, the UK. Estimates suggest that, in reality, at least 10 children are trafficked every week in the UK. The findings meant that British children went to the top of the list of potential UK trafficking victims. Girls, who make up 65 per cent of trafficked children in the NCA report, are mostly used for sex, while boys are forced into hard labour.

 

An example from a recent TIP report illustrates just how vulnerable children are to this form of exploitation. When a British-Nigerian couple offered to take Paul, 14 years old, from Nigeria to the UK, enroll him in school, and pay him to perform housework, he accepted. Once in Britain, however, the family changed his name and added him to their family passport as an adopted son. They forced him to clean their house for as many as 17 hours each day for no pay and did not allow him to go to school. They took his passport, set up cameras to monitor his movements, and limited his contact with the outside world. Paul tried several times to escape; once he contacted the police, who told him they did not handle family matters. Eight years after that, Paul heard a radio report about modern slavery and bravely reached out to an NGO. The NGO helped, and the couple was arrested a few months later after having exploited Paul for 24 years. They each received 10-year sentences, six years for servitude and four for other crimes. (Trafficking in Persons Report. June 2016. United States Department of State.)

 

A 2010 report by Kalayaan, a small London based non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom, illustrates the nature of the abusive control that often prevents people from leaving these exploitative situations. They found that sixty per cent of those who registered with it were not allowed out unaccompanied, 65 per cent had their passport withheld, fifty-four per cent suffered psychological abuse, eighteen per cent suffered physical abuse or assault, three per cent were sexually abused, twenty-six per cent did not receive adequate meals, and forty-nine per cent did not have their own room. ( Submission to the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery Jenny Moss, Community Advocate, Kalayaan 04 June 2010 )  To quote Desmond Tutu again;

'If there is one abuse that offends our conscience in every way, it is the enslavement of a human being… No child should be born without hope; no person should live without freedom'

(Desmond Tutu in the forward to Slavery by K. Bales et al. Free the Slaves 2015)

 

Despite still being limited in its powers and coverage, in particular not yet protecting the catering and service industries, the GLA has made some inroads. For example in the most recent modern slavery conviction, in January last year, two Lithuanian men were found guilty of trafficking two of their fellow countrymen, taking all but £20 of the wages they received over several months, working in food factories that supply many leading supermarkets; including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco’s and M&S. The victims, twin brothers, one with profound learning difficulties, were found still wearing the same clothes in which they had made their journey to Britain. They had also lost weight dramatically since leaving Lithuania – about 15kg (2st 4lbs.) in one case. The twins said their convicted gangmasters had repeatedly threatened them with violence.. They were hungry, frightened and very reluctant to speak. They were found working in a chicken factory owned by the largest poultry processor in the UK, the 2 Sisters Food Group, whose factory in Flixton, Suffolk, supplies meat to many leading British supermarkets, After several weeks, the Flixton factory’s human resources manager was alerted to a problem and interviewed the brothers. The manager, in turn, reported his concerns immediately to the Gangmaster Licensing Authority who acted immediately. (Felicity Lawrence. The Guardian 22 Jan 2016)

 

There are some factors, which are sadly, common to most situations of trafficking or forced labour. Victims are very often identified prior to trafficking because of their vulnerability; for example because of their impoverished financial situation, drug or alcohol addiction, possession of a criminal record in their home country, or increasingly it would seem, targeted because of their learning difficulties. In addition they are likely to be victimised twice, there is widespread evidence from the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group that many people face prosecution for the crimes they are forced to commit by traffickers, despite legislation to protect victims, except in very obvious cases of abuse as above.

 

Despite the many obstacles to eradicating it, not least because this form of exploitation generates considerable income for the perpetrators, there are things that we can all do to combat this pernicious practice. One very important factor is recognizing it and this is something we can all do relatively easily by educating ourselves on what to look for. Slavery and exploitation are very often right under our noses if we know what to look for. Knowing these indicators could help bring these abhorrent situations to light.

 

Physical appearance -
Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse, appear malnourished or unkempt, or seem withdrawn.

Isolation - 
Victims may rarely be allowed to travel on their own, seem under the control or influence of others, rarely interact, or appear unfamiliar with their neighbourhood or where they work.

Poor living conditions - 
Victims may be living in dirty, cramped or overcrowded accommodation, and/or living and working at the same address.

Few or no personal effects -
Victims may have no identification documents, have few personal possessions and always wear the same clothes – day in, day out. What clothes they do wear may not be suitable for their work.

Restricted freedom of movement - Victims have little opportunity to move freely and may have had travel documents retained.

Unusual travel times -
They may be regularly dropped off/collected for work very early in the morning or very late at night.

Reluctant to seek help -
Victims may avoid eye contact, appear frightened or hesitant to talk to strangers and fear law enforcers for many reasons, such as not knowing whom to trust or where to get help; fear of deportation; or fear of violence to them or their family.

 

For more information or to report a case of modern slavery please call the helpline 0800 0121 700 or report it online on the modern slavery helpline website. (GOV.UK)

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