What is modern slavery?

For many of us, “slavery” brings to mind ancient or colonial times. We rarely realise that slavery still thrives today and that human trafficking is one of the most profitable crimes in the world. Modern slavery, which at first glance may seem like bad employment practice, is a serious offence, with convicted perpetrators sometimes facing life imprisonment under British law.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery can be defined as a situation in which an employee cannot choose their employer and is forced to work through coercion, threats, punishment, blackmail, or deception. The victim very often is barely paid (e.g. £50 per week) if at all. As a result, victims cannot live independently or maintain tenancies and are forced to live in places controlled by their employers, often alongside many others. The same ’employer’ or their associates may also arrange meals and transportation to and from the workplace, with deductions for these services taken out of victims’ meagre wages. As a consequence, victims can fall into debt and become dependent on their employers, without no way out in sight.

The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates 40.3 million people globally are victims of modern slavery, 136,000 of which are in the UK alone. Migrant workers very often fall prey as poverty forces them to accept any job. There are also those who are responsible for recruiting potential victims in their home countries and persuading them to work for an employer in the UK.

How to recognise modern slavery

Modern slavery exists in many job sectors, but it especially affects workers with fewer qualifications or English skills. Common instances are in the construction, food, agriculture, and manufacturing industries, or in car washes and nail bars. Exploitation often takes place very close to us, in the house next door, at a car wash we use, or in our local fast food restaurant. Many victims have dealt with or heard about employers who only pay some of the wages they owe, often very late, or who control their employees’ ID documents or bank accounts for so-called ‘security’ purposes.

Debt slavery” is another common form of modern slavery: the victim is forced into debt bondage, with debts having arisen from travel or recruitment fees. These debts are often inflated, making them impossible to pay off, so that the victim can be controlled for as long as possible.

Women too can be victims of modern slavery, especially domestic workers or childminders, who can be forced into domestic servitude – they are always ‘on call’, working long hours without days off, and are not allowed to leave the employer’s house without permission. Often, they are subjected to violence or are coerced into sexual activities. Sometimes, marriages are arranged between a victim and the citizen of a non-EU country so that the latter can obtain a UK visa.

Modern slavery is very often linked to organised crime. Criminals look for victims amongst the homeless, forcing victims to commit illegal acts such as thefts, begging, or financial and benefit fraud. Victims of modern slavery are often people with learning disabilities or mental illnesses, as they can be easier to control. What makes modern slavery more attractive to criminals than handling stolen goods or smuggling drugs or guns, is that the victims can be repeatedly exploited in a number of ways.

The UK government programme to support victims

In 2009, the UK introduced a scheme to help victims of modern slavery and human trafficking – the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). A potential victim can be referred to the NRM through the police, local authorities, or several charities such as the Salvation Army, Migrant Help, Medaille Trust, or Unseen. If the person is reasonably believed to be a victim, they will receive shelter away from the perpetrator, an assigned caseworker, and a £65 per week allowance. Accommodation is provided for a minimum of 45 days, during which the victim has the opportunity to rest and recover. In the meantime, the circumstances of the case are investigated and a final “Conclusive Grounds” decision is reached as to whether the exploitation amounted to modern slavery. If the decision is positive, the victim is entitled to receive further support; if not, the person is given several days to leave the shelter and seek alternate arrangements.

The East European Resource Centre supports Polish and Romanian victims of modern slavery in London

Unfortunately, some victims are distrustful of UK authorities and are reluctant to enter the NRM. In addition, due to language barriers, many are unable to explain what they have been through or seek support.

Our project offers support in Polish and Romanian to potential victims of modern slavery. We can help victims enter the NRM or offer further support to those who choose not to: our assistance is tailored to the victim’s needs and may include help finding accommodation, contacting family, finding employment, claiming benefits, seeking legal advice, or accessing free English lessons and employability skills courses.

To learn more about how we can help, please contact us on 0800 121 4226 (freephone) or email slavery@eerc.org.uk.

If you notice signs of modern slavery around you – act!

If you suspect someone is involved in modern slavery in the UK, you can anonymously report it on the Modern Slavery Helpline: 08000 121 700 or at https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/report. You can also report it to local police.