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Modern-Day Slaves Are Still Being Bought and Sold on Britain's Streets

We spoke to two formerly enslaved people about how little has changed since the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015.

by Nick Chester
04 June 2019, 11:02am

A protester at a 2017 demonstration against human trafficking. Photo: See Li / Alamy Stock Photo

Piotr had been struggling to find employment in his home country, so when he was offered work in the UK he immediately jumped at the chance. He was told that "fantastic job opportunities" awaited, and that his travel and housing would be arranged by his new boss, saving him the effort of having to organise them himself. It seemed like the break he'd been looking for, and he boarded the plane to England full of hope and excitement, looking forward to finally having some cash in his pocket.

When he arrived at his accommodation, though, he began to suspect something was amiss. Nineteen other people were already living in the house, packed in like sardines. There was no heating and he didn't have a bed to sleep on, just a mattress on the floor. It didn't seem like the type of quarters a respectable employer would provide.

Piotr's workplace was equally squalid; his job entailed sorting and processing raw materials at a dirty, foul-smelling recycling plant. The hours were long and the work was hard and gruelling. Still, he reasoned to himself, it wasn't perfect, but at least he'd have some money coming in. It would all be worth it when payday came.

When it was finally time for him to reap the rewards of his labour, Piotr was told that rather than going directly to him, his earnings would be put towards paying for his accommodation, transportation to the country, travel to the plant and the cost of employing his supervisors. His passport was confiscated and it was explained to him that if he complained, the authorities would be told that he was working illegally and he'd be deported. His employers already had access to his bank account because they'd helped him set it up, ensuring that they knew when his card and PIN would arrive at his digs so that they could intercept them.

Throughout the following weeks, Piotr worked arduously and received nothing in return, with expenses constantly added on to his debt so could never pay it off. He was now the property of the company; the "fantastic job opportunity" had been a ruse to lure him into modern-day slavery.

Piotr's case is far from unique. A helpline run by anti-slavery organisation Unseen UK recently reported that it received over 6,000 calls from victims in 2018 alone, leading to the identification of over 7,000 potential victims.

The fact this number is still so high, despite the passing of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, is partly because so many of those responsible for enslaving people go unpunished. A recent government report indicates that too few convictions are being handed out and that there is a lack of enforcement of anti-slavery laws. Statistics cited by Adam Hewitt of modern-day slavery charity Hope For Justice indicate that the Unseen UK figure might just be a hint at the true number of victims; a 2017 survey placed the number at 136,000.

Of that number, roughly 40 percent are sex slaves – women who are either forced into prostitution or kept as prisoners and repeatedly raped. Victims of sexual slavery are similar to enslaved labourers like Piotr in that they're often transported into the country from Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa after being told that legitimate work awaits. Sexual slavery also affects British women – most of whom come from backgrounds of abuse.

This was the case for survivor Rebecca Mott, who was forced into prostitution before even reaching her 15th birthday. After being plied with cocktails by the bouncers at a local nightclub, she was taken to a house and gang-raped for six hours. She was then regularly forced to have sex with as many clients as possible, many of whom were extremely violent towards her. Mott believes that the misconception that only Eastern European women end up as sex slaves means there's a lack of awareness of the plight of women who have been internally trafficked.

"It's not just Eastern European people doing it, English people do it as well," she says. "I think we’re very badly educated about trafficking in this country. Most people have a stereotypical view of it."

There also appears to be a great deal of ignorance surrounding the other main form of modern-day slavery in the UK: forced labour. According to Adam Hewitt, law enforcement agencies frequently fail to recognise this as slavery, viewing it instead as poor working conditions. This can lead to the perpetrators going unpunished after a complaint is made to the authorities, reinforcing the idea that they can operate with impunity.

"Up until recently, few police forces have had the knowledge or capacity to deal with it properly,” says Hewitt. "It's a complex and confusing crime, and many police officers try and deal with it as a civil matter, and see it as an issue between somebody and their employer, rather than as a crime with an element of trafficking."

human trafficking uk
A protester at a 2017 demonstration against human trafficking. Photo: Penelope Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo

Forced labour accounts for approximately two-fifths of modern-day slavery cases in Britain, and is often organised by criminal gangs who view their workers as a commodity rather than human beings. Victims are regularly brought into the country by slave masters and put to work in car washes, nail bars, salons and restaurants. When their bosses are done with them, it’s not uncommon for them to be sold on to another owner. Hewitt has encountered victims who have been sold for as little as £100, with the sale taking place in front of them as if they were invisible.

Some slaves are used to perform domestic chores as opposed to commercial work. Domestic slaves usually live in their employers' households, cleaning, cooking and doing other menial chores. Some are enslaved in other countries and travel to Britain with their "masters". Others are trafficked here under the pretence that they'll be taken in by a caring individual who wants to provide them a better life.

Domestic slaves are sometimes forced into marriages for the purpose of serving their husband's family while also being coerced into sleeping with him, doubling as sex slaves. This happened to Sunny Angel, an ambassador for honour-based-abuse and forced-marriage charity Karma Nirvana, who has since written a book about her experiences. Sunny was made to marry a man with learning disabilities so that she could act as his full-time, unpaid carer and carry out a variety of different household duties for his mother. It was made clear to her that she was to behave in a subordinate manner at all times, and she was told that she had to touch her mother-in-law's feet whenever she entered the room as a sign of respect. She was also made to work long hours in a warehouse and give the family all of her earnings.

"I was used and abused," says Sunny. "I was told to get up at six in the morning, and was awake until three in the morning. I hardly slept. I was a shell of a person."

Sunny’s mental torture didn’t end at bedtime; each night, she was forced to have sex with her husband while his mother yelled instructions at him from outside the bedroom door. He didn’t understand what sex was, so his mum would show him porn films, training him to rape her. Sunny eventually fled the house after hearing whispers that she was going to be killed because she'd served her purpose. She believes that experiences like hers are actually disturbingly common, and that the situation is getting worse because of how easily forced marriages can be arranged via the internet.

Given the horrific nature of modern-day slavery and the fact that the situation doesn't appear to be getting any better, is there anything that can be done to prevent future victims succumbing to the same plight as Piotr, Sunny and Rebecca?

Modern-day slavery expert Jeff Norman believes that, in order to improve the situation, we need to trust that institutional mechanisms will bring slave-masters to justice and safeguard survivors. "Belief in the system and access to justice is key," he says, adding that the National Referral Mechanism – the framework for assisting survivors – has recognised that the government provision of support is current insufficient. "There are shocking examples of persons who have been re-trafficked because it can be a better option to becoming homeless, for instance, once the financial support for the help and assistance ends," he says.

These concerns are echoed by Mott, who draws attention to the fact that many slave masters deliberately leave their victims with nothing so that, if they try to escape, they will be left in desperate circumstances. "Most traffickers take away everything you've got," she tells me. "We need to build a system around the victims so that they have something to escape into."

As it stands, many modern-day slavery victims remain under the complete control of their masters, afraid to seek help and worried that they have been left with so little that they will be unable to function in the free world. Charities like Hope For Justice and Unseen UK are doing their best to raise awareness and push for additional assistance for victims, but whether or not their efforts will lead to the systemic changes that are needed remains to be seen.

@nickchesterv