The Modern Slavery Act has recently come into force, highlighting the wide prevalence of slavery in the UK.
Slavery is a subject people are ashamed to talk about. Perhaps the period and Stateside setting of the movies based on slavery will lead people to believe - especially here in the UK - that the atrocities portrayed are as distant and detached from our lives as any other Hollywood story.
Slavery existed as an industry for over 230 years. It represents a colossal stretch of world history. Since the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1865, gone are the African-American slaves in the cotton farms of the Deep South, the chain-gangs and the plantation workers. But forced labour of the same gravity still exists today in every corner of the globe. And Britain is no exception.
"It is walking our streets, supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind the curtains in an ordinary street... Something most of us thought consigned to history books.” Monique Villa, head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reminds us that slavery is happening on our doorstep and is a “shameful and shocking presence in modern Britain."
We couldn’t agree more. Responsible Trade Worldwide dedicates huge effort to uncovering and addressing labour inequality in global supply chains. There is much work to be done. Whilst in post, Foreign Secretary William Hague revealed: “There are more people suffering some kind of slavery today than were enslaved during the entire 18th century. Gangs make billions of pounds of profit by trafficking vulnerable people, including into Britain.”
Despite the UK being in the bottom 20 of 167 countries ranked on the Global Slavery Index 2014 (meaning we have one of the lowest levels of slavery), “this does not mean these countries are slavery free,” the Walk Free Foundation report says. The report alarmingly states that “there are an estimated 8,300 people in modern slavery in united kingdom” today.
Sobering, but perhaps not surprising given the central role Britain played in the slave trade until its abolition, see our infographic. Britain transported more than three million African people across the Atlantic. Cities like Liverpool, Bristol and London were key trading ports, where there are still buildings named after affluent traders whose wealth was built on the backs of slaves. According to the Guardian: “By the Victorian era, as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery.”
The fact that there continues to be a forced labour market in in the UK in2016 is grossly unacceptable. Just last month it was widely reported that car washes are hives of modern-day slavery – raids across the country confirmed both human trafficking and servitude. "We are encountering modern day slavery like this in our day-to-day life and it is in plain sight," the UK independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland said. How have we allowed slavery to happen right in front of us? Is it that we are truly oblivious of cases such as this happening so close to home or is it that we don’t want the trouble that would be caused by stepping in and taking action?
Over the past few years, we’ve learned that the son of one of Britain’s top anti-slavery experts was ‘subjected to a six-week campaign of 'unpleasant and casual' violence’, an ‘adopted son’ was kept as a slave for 24 years after being smuggled into the UK and just last week four brothers in Manchester were found to be running 'an illegal sweatshop, forcing workers to do 80 hour weeks’.
Less inconceivable now perhaps that there are similarities between the appalling working conditions of the 19th century and those in contemporary society. They are simply better hidden.
The Channel 4 series Benefits Street has helped bring to light the reality for many UK migrant workers to large TV audiences. One episode told of a group of Romanians who were cheated into working for £10 per day by a gang-master who enticed them with the promise of £40 a day. They felt threatened and intimidated after complaining to the police.
Despite the programme and landmark cases in the media, the number of prosecutions remains low. According to a recent report by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), the UK’s criminal justice system is struggling to eradicate human trafficking - an industry powered by organised gangs who move and exploit large numbers of vulnerable people, often at the edges of society where a low profile can be kept.
Migrant workers are often already used to low wages and unpleasant working conditions, so they come to accept their situation as better than nothing. Some victims may not even consider themselves as such, making them even harder to protect.
There are an estimated 10,000 gang-masters employing up to 800,000 undocumented migrant workers in the UK on criminally low wages. Tens of thousands of women and children have been brought into the country for the direct purpose of sexual exploitation, and the other strand of ‘homegrown slavery’ (i.e. no movement across international borders), targets mostly the homeless and those with learning difficulties.
Monique Villa believes the “common denominator of all these crimes is the evil intention to strip a human being of their freedom and then to use and abuse them, control and exploit them.” The tragedy is that, unlike the manacled slaves of two hundred years ago, these people are psychologically trapped.
While there are extraordinary, poignant examples of individuals emancipating themselves from slavery (one such told in the film, Belle), the vast majority of people treated as slaves, even those who comprehend the injustice of their situation, need help to escape.
Responsible Trade Worldwide participated in a Stronger Together event on tackling migrant worker exploitation in the UK. Retailers, charities and other vested organisations explored the problem in depth, including the business case for protecting workers - the only way of gaining commitment from those who can provide better conditions for workers.
Forced labour in the supply chains of British businesses, whether spanning the UK or the world, is a major issue that Responsible Trade Worldwide is addressing directly with an ethical assessment. Unlike traditional audit and compliances approaches, the RTW tool communicates directly with the (anonymous) end worker to assess their own labour conditions. It is a vital risk gauge for retailers who rely on an absence of bad press about their supply chains and for suppliers existing on lifeline contracts from big brands.
The task of closing down a multi-million pound ‘ghost’ industry needs commitment at all levels. Showing its serious intention to abolish the UK slave trade for good, the government has drafted a Modern Slavery Act which came into play this year. The first of its kind in Europe, the Act aims to increase the maximum custodial sentence for offenders from 14 years to life and introduce the new post of anti-slavery commissioner. The Act also requires companies with a turnover of over £36m to produce and publish a slavery and human trafficking statement each financial year clarifying what steps they are taking in ensuring there is no unlawful activity in their supply chain.
We sincerely hope the new Act in practice will make a difference here in the UK and Ireland and propagate slavery intolerance further afield. It is scandalous enough that we have an under-examined history of supporting slavery; there can be no more burying our heads in the sand. We have just as much responsibility as those who petitioned and fought to abolish the slave trade two hundred years ago.
As William Hague rightly observed: “If 18th-century campaigners could achieve so much faced with such immense obstacles, then we should be even more persistent: with all the advantages of the modern world and with the lessons of the past to guide and inspire us.”
We welcome your comments on the alarming slave trade in Britain, the Modern Slavery Act and what can be done to eradicate slavery once and for all.