Guest blog: Modern Slavery


When you hear the term ‘slavery’, you may think back to when individuals were allowed to own, buy and sell others, before the introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Unfortunately, slavery still takes place across the world today, often hiding in plain sight.

What is ‘modern slavery’?

Modern slavery refers to the offences of human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.

In the UK, the offence is considered so serious that it is punishable with up to life imprisonment. The number of potential victims referred for support in 2018 was 6,993. Worryingly, the true scale remains unknown due to its hidden nature.

As this threat cannot be tackled single handily, government organisations including the National Crime Agency, private and third sectors work together to help safeguard victims and make sure the public and professionals know how to spot the signs of modern slavery and how to report it.

Why do individuals become victims?

There are many reasons for this. They may come from unstable backgrounds and want to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones, or have fallen on hard times. They may encounter financial difficulties, are battling a drink or drug addiction or homeless. All of these situations make individuals vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.

Criminals may force victims to open bank accounts and take control of them to launder money or access their pay and benefits. This extends to credit cards, grants and even mobile phone contracts, sometimes without the victim even knowing.

It’s all about the money

The main reason criminals become involved in modern slavery is to make money. Criminals who are skilled in preying on the vulnerable, trick victims into believing they will be provided with good jobs and the chance of a better life, when the reality is the complete opposite.

Victims, and sometimes their families, are made to feel indebted to their trafficker and forced to pay back false debt (known as debt bondage) through working long hours for little pay, often in squalid conditions. Traffickers can exert further control through violence and by confiscating ID documents, with victims feeling trapped  to work until the debt is paid, in some cases it is never paid and the exploitation continues. Victims are often accommodated together in houses of multiple occupancy, used as another method of incurring debt.

Criminals may force victims to open bank accounts and take control of them to launder money or access their pay and benefits. This extends to credit cards, grants and even mobile phone contracts, sometimes without the victim even knowing.

Who is at risk?

Anyone from any background can be vulnerable to exploitation, both adults and children. The victim identification and support mechanism shows that some nationalities are known to be particularly vulnerable including those from Eastern European countries, Africa, Vietnam and China. However, British nationals are the most frequently exploited.

The different types of exploitation

In the UK, sexual and labour exploitation are the most prevalent.

Sexual exploitation involves individuals being forced to sell sexual services, frequently moved between brothels around the UK.

Labour exploitation can take many forms, with some of the most predominant including car washes, construction sites and nail bars. Victims are forced to work lengthy hours for little or no wage.

Other exploitation includes domestic servitude where children and adults are forced to cook, clean and perform other household duties, again for little or no pay, and criminal exploitation (forced begging, pickpocketing and cannabis cultivation).

Child trafficking is another form of exploitation including County Lines where criminal gangs groom vulnerable children to buy and sell drugs, often acting as runners between cities and rural /coastal towns.

Example of a modern slavery case

Michael Joyce subjected three vulnerable individuals to a brutal regime of work by trapping them into debt which they could not pay back.
He would loan his victims £50 but told them that they must pay back double by the end of the week. If the victims could not pay, the fee would again be doubled, trapping them into a vicious cycle of working in squalid conditions to pay off a debt which they should never have incurred.
These vulnerable victims were left feeling unsafe and paranoid. Two of the victims were so scared after contacting the police that they fled their home in fear of repercussions.
Mr Joyce was sentenced to five years imprisonment for five offences of forced labour, human trafficking and illegal money lending, having been convicted by a jury at Oxford Crown Court in August 2019.

For more information, see the Daily Mail article: Thug, 61, who forced three vulnerable workers into slave labour on traveller site after ensnaring with debts is jailed for five years (6 August 2019)

Spotting the signs

Below are areas to consider  that can help you identify if your client is being exploited, please note this is not an exhaustive list and your professional judgement is required as a small number of aspects may not indicate exploitation is taking place:

  • Does the client appear unkempt, in need of medical attention and / or malnourished?

  • Does the client appear nervous and/or avoids eye contact with you?

  • Is the client accompanied by someone else and does this person do most of the talking for them, including interpreting if English is not their first language?

  • Does the client act as if instructed by someone else or are their movements being controlled?

  •  Is the client in a situation of dependence, relying upon another for accommodation, work, transportation or food?

  • Is the client from a community or nationality vulnerable to exploitation?

  • Has the client been deceived about the nature of work they are employed in?

  • Is the client fearful of revealing their immigration status or unable to prove their status?

  • Is the client in possession of their own identity documents?

  • Does the client have no proof of occupation – contract, payslips, tax records for example?

  • Does the client live in a house of multiple occupancy or are you aware of the same address being used by multiple applicants?

  • Does the client work in a sector vulnerable to exploitation? (Brothel, nail bar, car wash or other low wage/manual labour sector.)

  • Does the client have their own bank account and do they have access to the bank card associated with this account, and their earnings/benefits? Do they know how much the balance is?

  • Does the client have multiple bank accounts with no apparent need?

  • Does proof of address/rental payments appear legitimate and are rental rates appropriate? Rent payments deducted from wages by the employer may indicate exploitation.

  • Where an intermediary is used, are they credible and can they be trusted to act in the best interest of the client?

What can you do to help?

If you suspect an individual is being exploited, you can call the police. In cases of immediate risk call 999, in all other cases call 101 clearly stating that you believe the individual is a victim of trafficking.

Alternatively you can contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on  08000 121 700

See the National Crime Agency website section on Modern Slavery

Picture credit: Rory Carnegie. Part of the Invisible People series commissioned by the National Crime Agency. Used with permission.