Stopping the UK slave trade

It may be hidden from view, but forced labour is happening on our doorstep

by Astrid Filippi and Giovanni Colapietro

Image by MissWhatever11291














Mira’s odyssey began in a small village in the Philippines. The need to provide for her family pushed her to approach an agent for overseas domestic work. She was brought to the UK and began work as a nanny and maid. She lived in the same room as the children she was looking after, working 16 hours a day with no time off. Leftovers were the only food she was allowed, and all her belongings were shoved into a tiny corner under the washing machine.

Since arriving in the UK, she hasn’t received a penny in wages and her ‘employers’ have taken her passport. Mira’s hope to provide for her family has ended up a nightmare.

Josef experienced similar horrors when he was trafficked to the UK from Romania. Forced to work for a family, he was threatened, beaten and made to live in a cold and dark garden shed, with no food or bedding and a hole as a lavatory.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing international criminal industry, and trafficked people are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, slavery and domestic servitude.

Estimating the scale of the problem is not straightforward. The only means to collect data about occurrences in the UK is the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a process set up by the government intended to identify victims of human trafficking to provide them with protection and support. In 2013, the NRM received 1,746 referrals of potential victims of trafficking, a striking 47% increase from 2012.

Labour exploitation thrives in unchecked and under-regulated job sectors. It’s a hidden threat, yet it is there – in the food we eat, the clothes we buy, the electronic devices we regularly make use of.

Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), whose work provides policy guidance and victim-centred research on trafficking for labour exploitation, says governments often fail to prioritise protection and support for victims.

“I think that internationally governments have used trafficking as a reason to restrain immigration,” says Policy Director Caroline Robinson, adding:

“Often governments will use it to prevent movement.”

FLEX has previously been outspoken in its criticism of the government’s draft Modern Slavery Bill, aimed at tackling labour exploitation, describing it in December as being overly focused on prosecution at the expense of prevention and the protection of victims.

However, Robinson is hopeful the Bill may serve as a tool to remind the government of its responsibility to protect all victims of trafficking.

“There is a possibility that [the Bill] will be used to prevent movement and migration,” says Robinson.

“But I think there is also room for activists for constantly refer the government to this protection framework, and that human rights apply to victims of trafficking no matter what their immigration status.

“With human trafficking it’s very clear that it’s completely regardless of immigration status whether they’re entitled to protection – the state has to respond,” she adds.

Announced in Queen’s Speech, the draft Modern Slavery Bill is aimed at improving the UK’s anti-trafficking legal framework. The Bill focuses on law enforcement based on sharing information between the government and ‘first responders’, which are local authorities, the UK Border Agency, police and the Gangmaster Licensing Authority, which have the legal duty to report potential victims of trafficking to the National Crime Agency.

Other core measures introduced are life imprisonment for human trafficking offenders, stronger controls at the UK border and an Anti-Slavery Commissioner reporting directly to the government.

One possible preventive measure against exploitative business practices missing from the Bill is the establishment of a truly independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner entitled to visit and monitor worksites, which could help prevention and prosecution of unlawful employers.

Robinson also sees information as a key weapon in the fight against labour exploitation, explaining that some high profile trafficking cases have actually involved victims who had the right to work in the UK but didn’t know it, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

“We also know that when people are very marginalised, either as documented migrants who are stigmatised in the UK – and that now is Romanians or Bulgarians – or undocumented migrants who are even more stigmatised in the UK – they have less opportunity to gain information about their human rights and labour rights,” she says.

FLEX would also like to see more labour regulation inspections, which are an opportunity for bodies like the Gangmaster Licensing Authority to pass on information to workers, as well as information coming through migrant community organisations and peer-to-peer education by workers.

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