Worker Voice Series – Manual Labour Slavery in the UK

In this series we’ll be sharing stories of individuals who have experienced slavery first-hand in the UK labour market. We want to bring people’s attention to the illegal recruitment practices happening all around us, and how these systems of slavery are created in the first place.

TRAPPED IN CONDITIONS OF SLAVERY

Mark Ovenden was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year, The Modern British Slave Trade. In 2009, living on the streets and “on the edge of destitution,” Mark felt he’d been given a lifeline when, on his way to a soup kitchen, William Connors stopped his van to talk to him and offered him work with food and accommodation.

“I thought, ‘Why Not?’” said Mark. The reality was a different story. Connors and his wife ran a slavery ring at their traveller campsite, where Mark had his head shaven, his ID taken and was made to sleep in bunks. There would be eight men sleeping in a horsebox, in conditions Mark describes as “like a concentration camp.”

The work itself – long hours outside in the cold and rain laying patios and driveways – was equally miserable. Despite knowing he was enduring the very worst living and working conditions, with no functioning toilet and an outside tap to wash in, he felt trapped.

"The number of times I had seen him (Connors) punch people, kick people, push people around. Threaten people’s lives frequently,” reports Mark. Many were working for less than £5 per day, sharing one outside tap and broken outside toilet. The men were given more alcohol and cannabis than food to survive on, creating an addiction to the source and making it even harder to escape.

THE PATHWAY TO MODERN SLAVERY

The sad truth is, it’s easy to see what starts as innocent acceptance of a job offer can lead quickly to imprisonment.

Tricked into working under the premise of a fair job, Mark was forced into a corner from which he couldn’t escape. Without financial or family support, he had no way of reaching out for help. His slave keepers knew that his need for accommodation and his societal isolation, fear of physical abuse and lack of support network would force him to endure squalid conditions.

Thankfully, today Mark is in a much better place. He was freed after two years with around 20 other men and his case led to William Connors and his traveller family being jailed.

BREEDING GROUNDS FOR FORCED LABOUR

Sadly, Mark’s escape from slavery is a rare positive ending alongside the estimated 13,000 people living in slavery conditions in the UK today.

Manual labour industries where large numbers of eastern European men find work are breeding grounds for slavery rings. Recently we heard that Volvo’s third-party car valet service in the southeast, USA Car Wash, had young men working 12-hour shifts outside and living in filthy containers. Paid below minimum wage and having to pay £40 per week in rent, the workers suffered verbal and physical abuse and had wages withheld for causing minor damage.

It is shocking that a first-tier supplier to a brand such as Volvo can run an operation of abusive labour practices under their nose and under the radar. At the end of this Worker Voice series, we’ll explore how UK labour slavery, racketeering and trafficking rings come into existence and operate successfully in the UK as well efforts that are tackling the root causes.

We are working actively with UK retailers and manufacturers to uncover modern slavery risks in their supply chains, ultimately ensuring the fair treatment of every worker in their supply chain. We also find that brands find high customer loyalty and lesser risk of damaging media coverage when they can demonstrate how they achieve supply chain transparency.

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