When the statue of Edward Colston was wrenched from its plinth and rolled into Bristol Harbour, the historic role of slavery in Britain's economy became front-page news. What hasn't garnered the same level of attention is the fact that modern slavery in Britain is trapping more people than ever, many of whom are now hidden even deeper within the black market economy because of the coronavirus lockdown.
Since 2011, The Salvation Army has helped 10,000 people escape from modern slavery in Britain. Many arrive expecting legitimate work and are trafficked into slavery; others might owe debts and become enslaved by a paymaster. In the year up to June of 2019, the charity helped 2,251 victims – born in 99 separate countries – escape from slavery. Of those, 1,072 were trafficked for manual labour, 881 were trafficked for sex and 274 for domestic servitude. The charity also reported that four people have been trafficked to the UK for organ removal.
A huge number of the women saved have been sexually exploited, says Major Kathy Betteridge, director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery at The Salvation Army. "Out of the 1,247 women who entered our support services [last year], 236 [19 percent] told us they were pregnant or suspected they might be pregnant during their initial assessment," she says.
Weed farms, nail salons, takeaways, sex work, car washes, agriculture, domestic work and food processing are hot spots for modern slavery. But during lockdown, these industries have ground to a halt as face-to-face industries disappear and people stay at home.
With the lockdown lifting, the public can play an active role in rescuing modern slaves hidden in plain sight, says Rob Richardson, head of the National Crime Agency’s modern slavery and human trafficking unit.
"If you are getting your nails done super cheaply or your car is getting professionally washed for £5, is it because the people are not being paid properly to do that?" he says. "Cheap takeaway food is another area of concern. The public need to ask, 'Is somebody suffering somewhere along the line?' There is a huge amount of information about sweat shops abroad, but there is less awareness of things happening here."
"One victim was told they would remove his kidneys if he didn’t keep quiet"
Once businesses closed due to the pandemic, organised crime gangs had been expected to simply dump trafficked victims in the street, causing a spike in homelessness. Instead, they have been dragged from street level – where it's more likely their situation will be discovered – into more distant reaches of the economy.
"Organised crime moves to where there is an opportunity to make money – if it cannot make money where it is, it will move elsewhere," says Richardson. "These crime groups see these people as a commodity, so they have kept hold of them and moved them out of view."
For instance, the NCA believe many trafficked sex slaves have been forced into performing on camming sites, where gangs can watch them and prevent them calling for help. Those previously working in car washes or restaurants may have been dragged into agriculture or food preparation, away from public view.
Many of these trafficking gangs are immensely sophisticated. Operation Fort, put together by West Midlands Police, discovered a Polish trafficking ring that had an inside man working at a legitimate recruitment agency. There, he recruited trafficked workers to work on farms and in recycling plants and turkey-gutting factories, where they were paid just £20 a week.
The ring was believed to have had 400 victims living in squalid, rat-infested homes, with some washing in canals because they had no running water. One died in captivity and another was told the gang would sell his kidneys if he didn't keep quiet. Many of the farms where the trafficked people were placed had no idea their workers were not taking home their own pay, as victims were forced to hand over everything to the gang after it landed in their accounts.
There has been a dramatic spike in reports of human trafficking and modern slavery since The Salvation Army officially partnered with the Home Office to care for victims. In 2011, they received 378 cases; by 2019, this was up to 2,251 cases.
Part of this rise is down to the fact that word has got out to vulnerable individuals that help is available – but the other factor is how appealing modern slavery is for organised crime. If you import drugs, you can only sell that product once. A human cargo can be sold and abused over and over again. This is shown in the 807 percent increase in child slavery cases in the past five years – boosted by the rise of county lines.
"For sex workers in debt bondage, they will not be able to run away, even if they have no work because of the virus," says Richardson. "The gang will then change the rules, and they never pay it off, and they are in servitude for the rest of their lives. They will be under so much control and be so keen for work, a lot of these people will move themselves around the country under the crime group to wherever the work is."
The global theft of human lives
According to The Salvation Army's 2019 report, nearly a quarter of those supported were from Albania. Most were women who had been sexually exploited, with Albanian men ending up enslaved in manual work.
For the third year running, the highest number of male slaves came from Vietnam: some 209 Vietnamese were rescued from slavery in 2019. According to the NCA and The Salvation Army, a huge number of those are put to work in cannabis farms. As VICE reported last year, organised crime groups had systematically been fraudulently renting flats across big cities and the countryside – 144 in total – for the purposes of sex work and marijuana farms. The Vietnamese workers who tended the marijuana farms said they had been trafficked.
If their enslaved life here is terrible, for trafficked individuals the journey is no better. Until this week, the methods of getting to the UK legally or illegally – passengers flights, ferries and on lorries via the Eurostar – had been mostly shut down, meaning traffickers sought other ways of getting people into the country, leading to a dramatic spike in illegal dinghy crossings during lockdown.
"We now see a significant number of migrants attempting to cross in inflatable rafts, into the busiest shipping channel in the world," says Richardson. "Now we are entering a period of fine weather, people are taking high risk methods. This is the challenge that is facing us."