Last year I met Ben, a British man who’d been made homeless and had been living on the streets. Collecting food at a soup kitchen one evening, he was approached and offered a job by a man and woman. Having nobody to call and nothing to pack, Ben got in the car. What followed was months of abuse as Ben was forced to work paving driveways, paid little and kept in squalor. He was threatened, intimidated and forbidden to leave. Working alongside others, some of whom were so totally broken that they called their boss ‘Daddy’, Ben endured horrendous abuse at the hands of men who saw him as a cheaper option than buying a machine. This is modern slavery in the UK.
It’s an uncomfortable truth to acknowledge – that thousands of people are being forced into slavery here in the UK. Enslaved in households, drug farms, brothels, nail bars, factories and on the streets, British and non-British people are taken against their will, hidden from view and forced into some of the most appalling conditions to live and ‘work’.
But today, the day before Anti-Slavery Day, Britain finds itself at a turning point. The soon-to-be-drafted modern-day slavery bill will provide an historic opportunity for Britain to force slavery out of its hiding place. The bill – recommended in the CSJ report It Happens Here – will bring clarity to the laws on slavery, shifting the focus from immigration to serious crime, and will legislate for an Anti-Slavery Commissioner to amplify the voices of victims and make sure government is taking action.
Other opportunities are also on the horizon. The Global Slavery Index, published today by Walk Free, is the first attempt of its kind to map the scale and forms of slavery taking place across the world. The Economist today reproduces its startling figures on slavery (below).
This report represents another step forward in uncovering and fighting a problem that has remained in the shadows for too long. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has today announced vital changes to the help offered to vulnerable victims of sexual exploitation – many of whom are trafficked around the UK – reflecting a fundamental shift in the way victims are understood throughout the justice system.
These developments mark a series of crucial opportunities to tackle modern slavery. It is our job to ensure that they are not missed. As the great abolitionist William Wilberforce put it:
‘Great indeed are our opportunities; great also is our responsibility’
Lucy Maule is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Justice, and led the CSJ’s research on human trafficking and modern slavery from 2011-2013. Shenow coordinates the CSJ’s continued work on the issue of modern slavery.