Last updated: October 24, 2023
Modern slavery – an explainer
Unfortunately, even to this day, modern slavery (also known as modern-day slavery) exists in many forms across the UK, including human trafficking, sexual exploitation, domestic slavery and forced labour.
As a trade union, we are committed to preventing and tackling modern slavery in all forms across the UK.
What is modern slavery?
Modern slavery is a brutal form of serious and organised crime that exploits the most vulnerable, desperate people of our society.
Ruthless criminals target people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds coercing them into sexual exploitation, criminal and fraudulent activity, forced labour and domestic servitude.
What does the law say?
Modern slavery is covered by the Modern Slavery Act 2015 which is designed to combat all forms of modern slavery in the UK. The Act extends to England and Wales, but some provisions do apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well.
The Act sets out a range of measures on how modern slavery and human trafficking should be dealt with in the UK. Whilst not all the Act is directly relevant for business, section 54 entitled 'Transparency in supply chains' impacts the corporate sector.
Broadly speaking, it’s likely that a business will be obligated under the Act if it fulfils the following four conditions:
- It is a commercial organisation;
- it has a global turnover of over £36mn;
- it carries on a business, or part of a business, in any part of the United Kingdom; and
- it supplies goods or services.
Obligated entities need to publish a ‘slavery and human trafficking statement’ for each fiscal year, disclosing any risks they have identified and the steps they have taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in their own operations and supply chains
Where does modern slavery occur?
CrimeStoppers’ report highlights that an estimated 29.8 million people are enslaved to this day across the world, but this is not an issue limited to other countries.
Modern slavery is present in every part of the UK and is often hidden in plain sight. You might even see people trapped in slavery without knowing it. It might be someone working in a private home on your street; the person working in your local car wash; or the cleaner who empties your office bin every night.
Modern slavery exists in many forms in the UK, including trafficking into criminal activities like cannabis farming, sexual exploitation, domestic slavery or forced labour on farms, in construction, shops, bars, nail bars, car washes or manufacturing.
In 2021, criminal exploitation was the most common form of slavery in the UK, often driven by the cultivation and sale of drugs in the UK - especially by exploiting children.
How do people end up in modern slavery?
Migrant workers who come to the UK legally under sponsorship visas, can find themselves vulnerable to modern slavery vulnerable to being tricked, trapped, and exploited, because our laws do not properly protect them. This can happen when their sponsor is not legitimate, or the work they expected to do in the UK is not what they expected. This can lead to working for free or pay under minimum wage, passports being confiscated and held to ransom, bogus debt being demanded and working conditions being unsafe.
People who come to the UK illegally are even more vulnerable as they will often have no where else to turn.
People can be particularly vulnerable to modern slavery when external circumstances push them into taking risky decisions in search of opportunities to provide for their families, or when people find they are simply pushed into jobs in exploitative conditions. Anyone could be pressed into forced labour, but people in vulnerable situations – such as being in debt, or not having access to their passport – are most at risk.
Victims of modern slavery typically face threats of violence, are put into serious debt, or have their passport taken away and are threatened with deportation if they don’t do what they are told. And, for the many people who find themselves forced to work in illegal enterprises like drugs manufacturing, there’s the ever-present fear of being criminalised by the UK authorities for the activities that they have been trafficked into.
How to spot modern slavery
Without realising it, you may regularly see people who are victims of modern slavery. Most people who are enslaved do typically go about their normal lives, however if you know the signs, you may be able to help. Things to look out for include:
- They don’t speak much English.
- They appear malnourished.
- They appear tired.
- Their clothing is unsuitable for the weather.
- They appear scruffy/unwashed.
- They don’t own any personal possessions.
- They don’t know their home address.
- They have limited or no contact with their family.
- They’re reluctant to interact with others or make eye contact.
- They work excessive hours and rarely have days off.
- Someone else answers for them.
- They never have much money or appear to be in debt.
- They don’t own any personal identification documents such as a passport or driver's license.
- They appear scared, anxious, or distrustful.
- They speak incoherently, or regularly change accounts of events.
- They repeat a story that you have heard elsewhere (as if read off a script)
- They’re confined to their workplace.
It is also important to know how to spot where modern slavery could be taking place. Things to look out for include:
- The property is too small for the number of people living there.
- People only leave the property during unsociable hours.
- There are bars on the windows.
- The curtains/blinds are always drawn.
- The windows are boarded up.
- The letterbox has been sealed.
- Many women live there, and they receive regular visitors each day.
- CCTV is present.
- You notice a pungent smell coming from the property.
- The property looks uncared for.
While these are things to look out for, none of these things can give someone complete certainty that someone is a modern slave – however sometimes your instincts might tell you that something just doesn’t seem right. Even if you are uncertain, you should report your concerns.
How do I report modern slavery?
If you suspect someone is a victim of modern slavery, you should not confront them directly as this may put them at higher risk of abuse or result in them being moved.
Other avenues of support and help:
- Your trade union (us!)
- Migrants at work
How can I help tackle modern slavery?
At Community, we’re dedicated to ensuring that no one is taken advantage of – that’s why we offer a course on modern slavery awareness. If you are interested in taking this course, click here to contact our Community Learn team who will be happy to help.
You may also be interested in raising awareness of modern slavery, and encouraging your employer to publish a modern slavery statement to highlight the company’s commitment to tackling the practice and ensuring that none of their employees are victims of modern slavery.
Even if an organisation is not obligated to, it is still considered good practice to issue modern slavery statement to highlight commitment to tackling the practice and raising awareness of it.
If you are interested in fighting for equality and diversity for everyone at work, find out more about becoming a Community Equalities Rep, or visit our equalities hub for advice and best practice for equalities issues.
If you need help or advice, please contact us at email@example.com or on 0800 389 6332.
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