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Modern Slavery - The Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit

Ahead of their talk at ACO's Grant Making Forum on 11 June, the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit at the National Crime Agency provides some background to what modern slavery is, surprising insight into its prevalence and why it is happening today, and how to spot a potential victim.

In this modern world of advanced technology, social media and freedom of speech, you would not expect something like slavery, a heinous act which was abolished over 200 years ago,  would still exist.  However, it is these platforms which we so frequently use and rely on in today’s society, amongst many other methods, that enable slavery to happen across the world in front of our very eyes without even realising. Following the recent COVID-19 pandemic, it is anticipated that this crime will become even more prevalent, as more individuals become vulnerable to exploitation through no fault of their own.

Given the hidden nature and scale of this crime, it is not something that can be tackled single-handedly. Government organisations including the National Crime Agency, private and third sectors work together to help safeguard victims and inform and educate the public and professionals to spot the signs of modern slavery and how best to report it. Colleagues in the third sector, especially those who work in frontline roles, are very likely to encounter victims of modern slavery given the nature of their valuable work helping vulnerable people.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery refers to the offences of human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced labour. In the UK, the offence is considered so serious that it is punishable with up to life imprisonment. Modern slavery can take place across international borders or within one country between different towns, cities and rural locations, by force, coercion or deception, with the victim being at risk of exploitation both on their journey and at their final destination. This is different to people smuggling, which is a mutually agreed service where the individual has given their consent to be moved and is free to make their own choices once reaching their destination. The number of potential victims of modern slavery in the UK has been rising year on year, with over 10,000 referred for support in 2019. Sadly, the true scale remains unknown due to its hidden nature.

What does modern slavery look like?

Modern slavery can present itself in many different ways and is often closer to home than you may realise, operating throughout the various communities of the UK and beyond. At the heart of every modern slavery story, regardless of its location, is a vulnerable person who is being exploited by a hardened criminal. Shockingly, COVID-19 has not deterred criminals from exploiting  victims through modern slavery

In the UK today, labour and sexual exploitation are the most prevalent forms. Labour exploitation is driven by the desire for cheaper goods and services and cuts across many different areas, including car washes, construction sites, care home, nail bars, restaurants and takeaways. Sexual exploitation involves both male and female individuals being forced to sell sexual services and are frequently moved between brothels around the UK to help criminals generate profit. The current COVID-19 restrictions has seen a decrease in these ‘traditional’ methods of exploitation with a shift to where demand has increased such as food production. There has also been an increase in online sexual services including webcamming as a result of social distancing causing further harm.

One area of exploitation that has been on the rise in the UK is the County Lines phenomenon. Criminal gangs will target vulnerable children within the community, building up their trust and enticing them with items such as technology gadgets and the latest fashion. Once the initial grooming has taken place, these children are then forced to buy and sell drugs for the criminal gangs and are often instructed to run between cities and rural / costal towns. As a result of the pandemic, there has been a visible reduction in this type of exploitation which often relies on public transport. However, exploiters will continue to adapt and find new ways to continue to make profits through exploiting others.  

Other forms of exploitation include criminal exploitation amongst adults and children who are forced to carry out low level crimes such as pickpocketing and forced begging, as well as being forced to partake in cannabis cultivation, and domestic servitude, where children and adults are forced to cook, clean and perform other household duties.

Despite the changes in how criminals are currently exploiting their victims as a result of COVID-19,  traditional methods of exploitation are likely to resume once the restrictions are lifted.

It’s the 21st century – why is this still happening?

Underpinning this horrible crime is the criminal’s desire to make money which they do by exploiting people and preying on their weaknesses. But why are they able to easily exploit individuals in today’s society?

Many victims are vulnerable in some way. They may come from unstable backgrounds and want to make a better life for themselves and their families, or they may have encountered financial difficulties, falling on hard times which may result in drink or drug addictions, and /or homelessness. This leaves them open to exploitation by traffickers who have developed convincing tactics to lure these individuals into a false sense of security before exploiting them.  Across all exploitation types it is likely that victims who are dependant on offenders for accommodation and subsistence are at increased risk of homelessness during this pandemic. Where offenders are unable to generate profit from victims, it is unlikely they will continue to provide housing.  

In the UK, British nationals make up the highest number of modern slavery victims, with individuals from Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, India and Nigeria also regarded as highly vulnerable. Alarmingly, both male and female adults and children from any background, from anywhere in the world,  are at risk from exploitation and have the potential to become victims of trafficking.

How do the criminals do this and why don’t individuals just say no?

When someone is feeling vulnerable and lacking in self-esteem, it is all too easy to take someone up on the chance to change things for the better.

Criminals are very skilled in exploiting this vulnerability and will often build up trust, by befriending them and being sympathetic to their circumstances. As the trust builds, the criminal will be in a position to trick the individual into a false sense of security and offer them a  ‘good job’, accommodation and food, as well as offering to pay their travel costs to get to their destination. Thinking this is the chance for a better life the individual happily accepts the job offer when in reality it is the complete opposite – this new job and better life mean working long hours for little or no pay, often in squalid conditions, and accommodation is often shared with many unknown individuals (known as a house of multiple occupancy). This poses an even bigger risk in the current climate as victims are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 through sharing accommodation.

But why can’t an individual just turn around and say that they don’t want this anymore?

Often, the victim is made to feel indebted to the trafficker and forced to pay back a false debt, known as debt bondage. This debt can also be linked back to their families so if the individual was to refuse to pay this back, the debt would then move onto the victim’s family, inflicting a great emotional burden and potentially putting loved ones in danger. The traffickers may exert further control through violence and intimidation and by confiscating ID documents, effectively trapping the victim with no choice but to work until the so-called debt is paid back.

When a victim is paid any wages, the traffickers may force them to open bank accounts for their wages to be paid into. The account can be controlled by the trafficker and the victim may never have access to the account or money. The account may be further utilised to launder money or access the victims' pay and/ or any fraudulent benefit claims set up in the victims name. This can extend to credit cards, grants and even mobile phone contracts, often without the victim knowing. This also includes victims working in legitimate jobs with their wages being taken away unbeknown to the employer.

These methods of control leave the victim feeling trapped in a nightmare and the only way they believe that they can get out of it is to continue working to eventually pay back this debt. In some cases, this debt is never paid and the victim remains trapped in this vicious cycle.

The impact of COVID-19 is that these debts are likely to increase as work may be unavailable, however, victims may still be expected to pay for accommodation and food, making them feel increasingly trapped with no way out.

What should I be looking out for?

If you believe that your client is potentially being exploited by a trafficker, there are a number of signs that you can look out for. These have been grouped into different categories that you may encounter through your work. Please note this is not an exhaustive list and judgement is required, as a small number of these signs may not necessarily  indicate that exploitation is taking place:

Appearance and behaviours

• 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?

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

• 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?

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

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

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

• Does the client have limited contact with their family and friends?

Accommodation related indicators

• 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 have access to their tenancy agreement?

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

Financial indicators – money and identity documents

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

• 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 anybody else have access to your client’s bank account?

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

• Is the client under the perception that they are bonded by debt to someone else, for example to pay for their transport to the UK?

Work related indicators

  • Is the client in a situation of dependence, relying upon another for accommodation, work, transportation or food?
  • Does the client work in a sector which is vulnerable to exploitation? (this includes, but not limited to, brothel, nail bar, carwash other low pay/manual labour roles)
  • Does the client work very long hours, for little or no pay?
  • Has the client been deceived about the nature of work that they are employed in?
  • Does the client have proof of occupation – contract, payslips, tax records etc?

What you can do to help

Where there is an immediate risk of harm call 999 and in all other cases call 101, clearly stating that you believe the individual is a victim of trafficking. Alternatively, if you would like further advice contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. This helpline operates 24/7