Public vigilance is as important as legislation in tackling the vicious exploitation of migrants and the homeless, writes Dani Garavelli.
A week or so ago, I got my nails done for only the second time in my life. Because I have an aversion to upmarket salons frequented by perfectly coiffured ladies who know the difference between True Cobalt and Crystal Curacao, I picked a small, insalubrious shop staffed, as it turned out, mainly by immigrants.
We should put pressure on companies to take human trafficking seriously
It was only as I was being dropped off outside that it occurred to me maybe this wasn’t somewhere I ought to be patronising. Nail bars are, after all, among the businesses listed as centres for trafficking. And so – as the young woman buffed and polished – I subjected her to an interrogation on her life, her work and her long-term aspirations.
She quite readily told me she was from Iran, was studying English at a Glasgow college and hoped to become a beautician. It all seemed above board, but without more understanding of how these things work, how could I be sure?
Modern slavery is a growing social evil that is only now beginning to get the public attention it deserves. Last week, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said there are currently more than 300 live police operations, with trafficking in every town in the UK. Earlier estimates of 10,000-13,000 victims are thought to be “the tip of the iceberg” and the problem is so widespread ordinary people will be coming into contact with those affected on a regular basis.
Hours later, it emerged members of a traveller family had been convicted of running a modern slavery ring in Lincolnshire. There were 18 victims, aged between 18 and 64. One, who had worked for the family for 26 years, was forced to dig his own grave and told “that’s where you’re going” if he did not sign a false work contract.
The gang targeted homeless drifters, often with complex drug and alcohol issues, offering food and accommodation at construction sites around the county. The men were forced to work for little or no wages on the sites or for businesses repairing properties and tarmacking drives, while family members enjoyed holidays in Barbados.
Across Lincolnshire, there will be householders whose leaks were mended and gutters cleared by men who were held against their will. But we don’t expect this sort of thing to happen in a First World country in the 21st century, so we remain oblivious to it.
The homeless are not the only people preyed on; undocumented migrants are particularly vulnerable to gangs who promise them a better life in a foreign country, only to force them to work in brothels, building sites, fishing boats and farms.
Last week, the Modern Slavery Index 2017 pinpointed five countries – Romania, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Bulgaria – all key entry points for refugees, as posing the highest risk in the EU.
Nor is there any reason to suppose Scotland has escaped unscathed; in May, a BBC investigation, Humans For Sale, found Glasgow was being targeted by gangs from Eastern Europe, with Govanhill a particular hotspot.
The scale of the problem is not new to those who work in the human rights field. Long before Fiona Hill, the much maligned aide to Theresa May, helped coordinate the Tories’ disastrous general election campaign, she spearheaded the Modern Slavery Act 2015 – one of the few positive dividends of her boss’s time at the Home Office.
Last week, human rights barrister Cherie Blair said the Act had been instrumental in shining a light on a problem which – like child sexual abuse – has always existed. Some critics believe the NCA has been sluggish in its response, but now the issue is high on the political agenda, it seems to be upping its game. Earlier this year, the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Analysis Centre was set up to provide high quality intelligence to support its efforts.
But what should other parties be doing to help tackle the problem? Well, large companies have a duty to ensure no link in their supply chain is engaged in forced labour.
Under the Modern Slavery Act, organisations with worldwide revenues of at least £36 million who conduct business in the UK are required to publish a transparency statement describing the steps they have taken to ensure their business is free from modern slavery and human trafficking.
Yet last year it emerged that KozeeSleep, which supplied mattresses to several respected retailers, relied on scores of trafficked and enslaved Hungarian workers paid less than £2 a day.
Recent research suggested two-thirds of companies with turnovers above the threshold did not yet have full supply chain visibility (the ability to track parts, components or products in transit from the manufacturer to their final destination). And of those which did, only 41 per cent were sure that their UK workers were earning the minimum wage.
Unless businesses are prepared to carry out stringent checks, encourage whistle-blowing and devise a strategy for phased withdrawal if exploitation is discovered, it is unlikely the law will have the desired impact.
Ordinary members of the public have a responsibility too: to educate themselves on forced labour and report any suspicions to the authorities. In the past few years, we have become more aware of child sexual exploitation. As the scandals in Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford unfolded, we learned hundreds of young girls had been groomed by men working in the night-time economy. The abuse happened in plain sight, but no-one acted because no-one understood what was going on.
Now, thanks to public information campaigns, we know what to look out for: underage girls hanging around kebab shops and taxi ranks, missing school and/or displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour, for example.
We need similar campaigns to highlight the issue of modern slavery. Already the charity Unchosen has created postcards with a list of warning signs, such as people being moved around en masse at odd hours of the day, people who appear isolated from their community, people who live with their employer and people who are overly wary of the police.
We should also become more informed consumers; we should put pressure on companies to take human trafficking seriously and to publish information on their supply chains on their websites.
The idea that 184 years after the Slavery Abolition Act, people are still being held against their will and forced to work for no or little pay, is abhorrent. It is up to us all to put an end to it.