More Must Be Done To Tackle Modern Slavery

Modern slavery is one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns of our time. Whilst Home Office figures predict that there are currently some 13,000 modern slaves in the UK, Kevin Hyland, the independent anti-trafficking commissioner, has indicated that the true figure is believed to be much greater – perhaps in the tens of thousands.

Most people will come within close proximity to modern day slavery in their daily lives. It takes place at home, in services such as nail bars and car washes, and internationally, with particular problems in the food supply chain.

In July this year police arrested four people on suspicion of human trafficking and slavery offences following a raid of a nail bar in Southmead Bristol, highlighting a disturbing problem within the trade. The raid was prompted by a tip-off from a member of the public who raised concerns about a woman’s welfare. Without this intervention, who knows how much longer it would have taken for the victim to be identified and taken to a place of safety.

One organisation working to eradicate this hidden crime from our communities is Unseen, a Bristol-based organisation which provides specialist support for survivors of slavery, training to frontline professionals and runs the UK-wide confidential Modern Slavery Helpline. Their recent campaign, “Let’s Nail it” encouraged people to paint their nails bright colours in order to raise awareness of modern slavery, particularly its prevalence in nail salons.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary took part in Unseen’s campaign, sharing pictures of their brightly painted nails on social media. Whilst they came under attack for this in The Sun, with particular criticism from Tory MP David Davies. Despite this cynicism the campaign has already achieved results, with the constabulary since receiving three reports of suspected modern slavery in nail bars and a car wash in their force area that are now being followed up.

Modern slavery offences can be difficult to identify, but there are many signs that an employee may be treated as a commodity and exploited for criminal gain. Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse, or appear withdrawn. They may seem under the control of others, have few possessions, always wear the same clothes and have no identification documents. They may live and work at the same address, or may be dropped off or collected for work on a regular basis either very early or very late at night. I urge people to be vigilant when it comes to this hidden crime, so that they are able to spot and report it.

The problem of modern slavery does not just occur in services in the UK, but takes place internationally in our food supply chain. In Thailand’s fishing industry, for example, the Environmental Justice Foundation found that despite reforms, forced labour practices continue to be widespread. Their report ‘Seafood Slavery’ contained the shocking statistic that 59% of Thai fishing workers had witnessed the murder of a fellow worker, and many more had been tortured and abused, and have had wages, food and sleep withheld from them. The outputs of these vessels has been directly linked to the supply chains of many major companies producing seafood around the world – including the UK – with millions of pounds worth of seafood products imported from Thailand every year.

Just this week, two of Italy’s biggest tomato suppliers for UK supermarkets have been implicated in a range of labour abuses in a situation described as ‘conditions of absolute exploitation’ in which workers were required to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with minimal pay and no access to medical care. Globalisation and the pursuit of cheap food and drink imports must never be prioritised over the basic human rights and dignity of workers around the world. Such products have no place on British shelves.

We must work together to suffocate slavery at source, both in services and supply chains. If the low cost of a product or service seems too good to be true, it usually is. The human cost may be hidden, but we cannot in good conscience continue to ignore it.

If you suspect someone to be a victim of modern slavery you can report your suspicions or seek advice by phoning the Modern Slavery Helpline: 08000 121 700