What Does Modern Slavery Look Like?

July 19, 2016 Updated: July 25, 2016

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 U.K. 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 labor exploitation, which are now being seen in both “developing” and so-called “developed” countries.

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

The issue of forced labor in the U.K. 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 U.K. 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 labor exploitation is now more serious than trafficking for sexual exploitation. This pattern is repeated across many European countries.

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In the U.K., forced labor has been able to infiltrate the supply chain, because many companies providing labor don’t have a ready supply of people themselves and prefer to hire labor from agencies, however informal. Many make use of a network of labor agencies they can hire people from. And those companies which provide labor (known as labor 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 labor 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.

Because these gangs can move labor 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.

Shackles which were used to tether slaves on display at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, on Feb. 9, 2012. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Shackles which were used to tether slaves on display at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, on Feb. 9, 2012. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Widespread Concern

This type of slavery is happening across all areas of the U.K. 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 pounds 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 laborers are used to harvest fruit and vegetables, much of which finds its way onto the shelves of well-known high street brands.

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 U.K. 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 labor, right here, in a U.K. factory.

Another source recently revealed that one prominent budget hotel was being used as a brothel in the U.K., for women trafficked from Africa into a nearby international airport. And a trading standards officer visiting a house in northwest 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 U.K.—I was told that police were investigating claims of forced labor at music festivals where those supplying labor did so using labor supply chains which were not carefully scrutinized.

Police across the U.K. are now becoming aware of the different types of forced labor, with many forces (but sadly not all) setting up programs 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 labor here in the U.K. 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 U.K. from slavery should be everyone’s business now.

Gary Craig is an emeritus professor of social justice at the University of Hull in the U.K. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.