Guest contributor Darren Jones MP, who is the Vice-Chair of the APPG on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, explores misconceptions around modern slavery and how it can be tackled. This marks International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which takes place annually on December 2nd.
It’s tempting to think of slavery as a problem of a different age, but that would be a mistake. Around the world today, an estimated 40 million people are trapped in slavery. That’s three times more than during the transatlantic slave trade period. In the coming years, as the effects of climate change, COVID 19 and civil wars become more entrenched, millions more people may become displaced and vulnerable to exploitation. For the modern slaver, business is booming.
Today is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, and it’s important we recognise Britain’s legacy as a slave-trading nation and our duty to eradicate slavery today. We must also be honest about the existence of slavery and forced labour within our borders.
I currently serve as a Vice-Chair of the APPG on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. We investigate occurrences of modern slavery within the UK and the group helped establish the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. Currently, we are working with the Human Trafficking Foundation to understand the effect that COVID-19 has had on victims and survivors of modern slavery in the UK and the services available to them.
Slavery has changed since the days of the East India Trading Company, and lawmakers need to adapt. Modern slavery gangs take advantage of new technology to be agile and operate across borders undetected. From trafficking and prostitution to forced marriages and organ removal, modern slavers have diversified their tools for exploiting human misery. You will not find them on the stock market, but modern slavers generate £100 billion in profit per year, and a third of that comes from wealthy countries like the UK.
Slavery is not a far or distant problem. When first elected as an MP, I was shocked to learn about the scale of slavery happening in the UK. It happens in my Bristol constituency and across the country. As Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I questioned Boohoo about the disturbing revelations that they were paying their workers only £3.50 per hour in cramped Leicester factories. Their executives told my committee that it was a ‘matter of regret’. I’m sure their victims would use stronger language.
Away from the headlines, in high-volume cash businesses that include car washes and nail salons, victims of modern slavery walk among us. An estimated 13,000 enslaved people live in the UK today. Often, these people are working in dangerous environments with their passports confiscated, wages heavily garnished, and activities closely monitored.
In September, three co-conspirators were jailed for facilitating the trafficking and enslavement of 400 people into the UK. That was the UK’s largest-ever modern slavery prosecution. In Teesport, the police are investigating the disappearance of five children believed to be victims of trafficking. When we scratch beneath the surface of our economy, we see the spectres of slavery and people trafficking throughout the UK.
Make no mistake, the recent tragedies on small boats in the English Channel are facilitated by modern slavery operations and driven by UK demand. We’ve known for years that children and women are at extra risk of forced labour and prostitution as they make the dangerous journey to the UK via France and other European nations. It’s far too easy to use forced labour in the UK without detection from the authorities; that creates a lucrative market for people traffickers and slavery gangs.
Ultimately, slavery can only be eradicated by tackling its supply and demand. We need to strengthen transnational partnerships so we can disrupt international slavery gangs. 40% of slavery occurs within Commonwealth nations, and that’s why I’m working with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to empower these countries to take a firmer stance against slavery. We also need to recognise the horrors unfolding in the English Channel, the Mediterranean and the Belarus/Polish Border as part of a broader trend of increased conflict, climate change and tyranny around the world. Without proper support networks, today’s displaced refugees are in danger of becoming tomorrow’s enslaved people.
We also need to deal with the demand side of modern slavery by cracking down on labour exploitation in the UK. Many of the people working in the UK with no recourse to public funds are new to the country and without strong support networks; that makes them especially vulnerable to slavery operations and bad actors. So, we need to update the laws that protect our workers and give real teeth to the enforcement agencies that go after the companies turning a blind eye to forced labour. Labour market enforcement in the UK is something my committee and I will consider next year.
As we saw with the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, it is possible to take huge strides forward in combatting enforced labour. Today, every large company operating in the UK must proactively ensure their supply chains are free from slavery and forced labour, although these obligations and the depth of audit need to go further.
So today, on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, I invite you to join our call to make eradicating modern slavery a front-page issue once again. Ending modern slavery once and for all in the UK is possible, but it requires a bold people-first approach to policymaking. It’s the right time to do it, as we will need more robust labour laws and better international cooperation to overcome the challenges of climate change and global uncertainty. Just as Britain led the way in abolishing the slave trade in 1807, let us make it our mission to become the first country free from modern slavery today.
Darren Jones is the Labour MP for Bristol North West and is Vice-Chair of the APPG on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. He also chairs the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.