Modern slavery: too often we are guilty of turning a blind eye

The term slavery brings to mind images of the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the crime is still highly prevalent across the world today. Estimates from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggest that 40.3 million people globally are victims of modern slavery as of 2017, with ten million of these estimated to be children.

Modern slavery has a variety of definitions, with the word slavery itself conjuring images of a physically chained individual forced into domestic servitude. Perhaps the most encompassing comes from the Anti-Slavery Charity who define it as those individuals who are coerced, forced or physically constrained to work or engage in activities in a dehumanising manner under the control of their ‘employer.’ This deprivation of liberty and systematic abuse amounts to one of the largest abhorrent violations of human rights in the world today. The reality is that victims are often controlled in other means across a wide variety of sectors. Vulnerable adults and children are prominent targets to become victims of modern slavery, with a shocking 11 percent of the UK population now deemed at risk of being extorted (Global Slavery Index).

There is also an enormous variety in the types of slavery that exist including debt bondage and all forms of forced marriages. Globally the two most common types are labour and sexual exploitation. Forced labour covers every industry across the world including agriculture, construction, hospitality and fashion. In the UK, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s Office highlights slavery being particularly prevalent in the fishing, hospitality and construction sectors. Sexual exploitation encompasses forced prostitution, escort services and pornography. Disturbingly, the victims are of all ages, with the National Crime Agency (NCA) rescuing 102 young girls between 2016 and 2017 who were victims of sexual exploitation.

There appears to be a lack of awareness of the issue in modern society. Whilst official UK Government estimates suggested that there are 13,000 current victims of slavery in the UK, many experts and charities say this is a gross underestimation. The 2018 Global Slavery Index published the shocking statistic that it estimates 136,000 people in the UK are victims of modern slavery. Perhaps the lack of exposure in the public domain comes down to a lack of academic research in the area. When Concrete approached UEA’s School of International Development, not a single academic specialises in this area, which is somewhat surprising considering it is a human rights issue affecting 40 million people globally. Many might be under the illusion that this crime is confined to large urban areas, but Norfolk too is affected.

Over a three-year period, referrals from Norfolk Police to the NCA regarding potential slavery victims has more than tripled, with five children being suspected victims of slavery in 2017. To help raise awareness of this issue, a charity in the heart of Norwich associated with Anglican church, St Thomas Norwich, known as STN Trust, hosted an event at Norwich’s Assembly House to raise funds to help tackle modern slavery in India and in Norfolk.

When approached for comment by Concrete, STN Trust said, ‘Modern slavery is an area of injustice that is too often overlooked as the complexities in dealing with the issues surrounding it make it difficult to address. Those who seek other humans to treat as a commodity take advantage of those who are vulnerable.’ They went on to say that the event was a great success and they had received ‘very encouraging feedback.’

Too often we are guilty of turning a blind eye to reports of slavery. As consumers of high-end technological products such as laptops and mobile phones, we might effectively be supporting a process involving slavery. It is estimated that the UK imported £14 billion of goods in 2017 produced using slavery, with the spotlight on tech and clothing. And for those of us that use hand car washes, we should be taking a long hard think about the impact of some of these businesses. This sector has the highest number of victims reported to the Modern Slavery Helpline. Andrew Wallis, from the charity Unseen UK, spoke to The Guardian in October 2018. He said ‘the true cost of a hand wash for the average vehicle is £20. If you’re paying less, you have to ask why and how.’

The UK Parliament passed The Modern Slavery Act 2015 to help address the issue by increasing the sentence to a maximum of life imprisonment for traffickers and introducing the Anti-Slavery Commissioner to enforce a consistent response across the UK. Some charities, including the Anti-Slavery Charity, welcomed the legislation but criticised it for not providing more measures to support victims. Currently, the only assistance for victims is the National Referral Agency which provides support and accommodation for victims for only 45 days after their rescue. This is an issue we need to tackle together as a society. Public awareness must be increased, and more support must be made available for victims. 40.3 million people is a lot of people to be denied their basic right to freedom.

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May 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

If you would like to get in touch, email the Editor on L.Hargreaves@uea.ac.uk. Follow us at @ConcreteUEA.