Today, parliament is debating the UK's Modern Slavery Bill - a piece of legislation that's already received a fair amount of criticism. The bill is too heavily focused on prosecuting the perpetrators, say commentators, and not concerned enough with supporting the victims.
The critics have a point - prove that you're going to help victims, and they'll be more likely to seek your help. The more victims who come forward, the more prosecutions you should be able to get. It seems like fairly simple logic.
The public at large has become much more invested in the issue since the media storm that surrounded a case of domestic slavery in Brixton last year, prompting all sorts of opinions that don't necessarily have any basis in actual knowledge. So to get a handle on the exact circumstances currently surrounding modern slavery in the UK, I spoke to Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International.
VICE: Hi Aidan. There's been a lot more attention piled on modern slavery in the UK since the Lambeth case at the end of last year. Do you think that's a reaction to an escalation in cases, or has modern slavery always been there to the same extent it is now?
Aidan McQuade: It's potentially always been here. There's more attention being given to it now, and there's better tracking in terms of the number of people who are enslaved. The government's estimates in regards to the number of people enslaved over the past five to six years have varied from around 4,000 up to, currently, around 6,000 at any one time. I suspect that it's probably an underestimate, because the government refuses to deal with the issue of domestic migrant workers and the risk of forced domestic servitude occurring in private homes. I suspect that, if the government considered that, it would push the figure even higher.
The issue has been exacerbated by British government policy since 2012, which doesn't allow domestic migrant workers to change employers, irrespective of how abusive the situation it that they find themselves in - up to and including forced labour. So if they were to leave their employer, they would be deported as people who have broken the terms of their visa. That's an enormous power to hand to unscrupulous individuals [the potential employers].
So the current figures could just be the tip of the iceberg.
The current figures come from those who have stepped forward. The logic of the iceberg is that you see 10 percent of it above the water, but I suspect the balance may be more like half uncovered. I don't know the factor between what the government currently assesses and what it actually is, but it's very difficult to say. I would think that if you were to add the number of migrant domestic workers who are in forced servitude into current estimates, the number would jump by thousands.
One thing I wanted to talk to you about is the myth that slavery in the UK is predominantly to do with prostitution.
Yeah, the estimates indicate that trafficking for forced labour is higher than for sexual labour. The other myth that expands out of the myth of sexual exploitation and trafficking is that it's somehow part of a vast organised criminal conspiracy. There is a significant section of human trafficking that is undertaken by organised crime, but the majority of trafficking is undertaken by very disorganised crime. For example, individuals or families who are able to enslave a worker here or there, or groups of unlicensed gang masters who are able to enslave small groups of people. That then multiplies up into something that affects thousands of people. But the idea that Don Corleone is behind it - and therefore that's what the focus should be - is wrong. There needs to be a much more community policing of the issue.
The Home Office's anti-modern slavery advert
Is that where you think the modern slavery bill, which is being debated today in parliament, fails specifically?
There are a number of failing points. We want to see much greater protection for victims, and much more robust systems in the transparency of supply chains. The flaw at the beginning of the bill was the idea that we are dealing with mass organised crime. In addition to that, the government didn't want to be seen as soft on migrants. Most of the people being forced into labour in the UK are migrants. There are vulnerable British people, but the government's failure to grasp these factors has affected their response to slavery. While there's still a great degree of parliamentary activity going on around it, we're still a long way away from an admirable bill being passed.
You mentioned the government not wishing to be seen as soft on migrant workers. Do you think UKIP's sudden rise has directly affected how the government is dealing with this issue?
There's always been a peculiar sense of xenophobia in England - usually outside of London, which in turn has pervaded into parts of government, with politicians not wishing to be seen as soft on "Johnny Foreigner". The poisonous influence of UKIP on the discourse around migration in the UK has exacerbated that. On top of that, there has always been a lot of honest confusion in regards to people mixing up the issue of smuggling and trafficking.
Trafficking is the movement of people for forced labour. That is confused with the idea of smuggling, which is simply people coming into the country illegally. People who are smuggled are trafficked, but you don't have to be smuggled to be trafficked. The government is aware of this to a degree, and needs to continue to be aware of this as the poisonous influence of UKIP grows.
What kind of support do you wish to see victims receive that's not currently focused upon in the bill?
Enforcement is necessary but not sufficient. Slavery is a crime that needs more than a criminal justice approach. You need a focus on issues such as migration, trade and aid policy. It needs a much broader, more global perspective.
A core point is that if victims feel protected and secure, there's a higher chance of prosecution. A balance needs to be struck. If you wish to take a narrow criminal justice approach to the issue of human slavery you have to recognise that victim protection is key. Empirical evidence has always shown that if you treat victims with respect there's a greater chance of them appearing as witnesses for you. You have to look at counselling services and the provision of safe places to stay and remain. Reasonable access to legal and health services are all basic things that are needed, but there needs to be an unbiased approached towards the issue.
Research we did a few years ago showed that if you are from within the EU and you presented yourself to UK authorities as a victim of human trafficking, there was a greater then 80 percent chance that you would be recognised as such. If you came from outside the EU and presented yourself as a victim of human trafficking, there was a less then 20 percent chance that you would be recognised as such. This is something that I have thought about for a while, and I cant see any explanation for that discrepancy in decision making other then institutionalised racism. You can also see that emerging from the wider media and political discourse within the UK, which is anti-migrant.
A film released by the Home Office about modern slavery
As it stands, the bill would create an independent anti-slavery commissioner. Would that commissioner be truly independent?
They've called it an independent anti-slavery commissioner, but it's by no means independent. They have been advertising and recruiting for it for a while, and what they have done is recruited an ex-law enforcement type to report directly to the home secretary, who has the capacity to edit and completely change the reports.
So it's a blatant lie?
Thank you. That's a very accurate and succinct description of what it is. It's somebody who would look at very narrow law enforcement rather then broader criminal justice. If they say something the home secretary doesn't like, then a blue pencil will be struck through it. They will not consider immigration policy, trade policy and key broader issues, which are global in scope.
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