“I grew up in Barbados; it is a beautiful country, and everything is unity. We don’t rate nobody by colour, creed, nothing. It’s a place where anybody fits in you know, you fit in more if you buy them a beer.
“The person that brought me here won my trust, so I was shocked. I didn’t understand there was such a thing as modern-day slavery.
“Back in Barbados, I used to work two jobs and had a good income. My kids lacked for nothing. I looked after my family as well; I make sure that if anybody wanted anything, I could help them out – I was doing pretty well.
“I met this guy David, who used to come to Barbados on holiday. He used to tell me he had his own company in the UK and how much money he makes – he used to sing a good tune.
“One day I lost my job. It was a big salary hit, and it knocked me flat. I downsized and tried to get other jobs, but places weren’t taking anybody on. So, David called me up and I tell him about things getting bad and he said, ‘You gotta come and work for me.’ He gave me a lifeline. ‘Come work for six months – you can earn up to £600 per week.’
“So, you can see how that would jump. He said, ‘I’m gonna pay for your ticket and everything.’
“I said, ‘Shoot – well, my son, he’s 14 – I’m not leaving him in Barbados.’
“He said, ‘No problem.’
“So, I decided, I got my bills to pay, I got my family, my kids – I’m going. Six months ain’t gonna kill me to get my affairs in order. My son – he’s into football. The thrill of football, getting into school, for the time being, got him excited.
“And so that was what we did. We left Barbados on my son’s birthday. We came all ambitious, high hopes…and walked right into a trap. The first flaw was it was a one-way ticket. At the time, I didn’t check it to see if it was a return or nothing. They had it all set up.
“They took us back to this house, and then they let me know the business. If I don’t do the work, they were gonna kill my son – I had no choice. My son was 14 years old, in a strange country, he don’t know what’s going on.
“So I was getting up at five in the morning til six at night, going out in extreme weather conditions. I’d never been in snow before, now working in snow with no proper clothing or equipment. I was hungry to the point where you have conversations with your stomach. Lifting 500-600 blocks from one scaffolding to another scaffolding, stirring concrete, tiling roofs, building walls – boy, it was hard.
“I never worked the same place twice. I used to be in the back of the van with the tools, and we drive all over. I work places I never even know existed.
“The people whose houses we worked on, private homes and stuff, they don’t know this was going on. When they come in, you’re gone. They don’t care who’s doing the work, they just pay to get the work done. A lot of people used to pass me, and they didn’t even know. They didn’t know that I was pulling out those walls and stuff for nothing, you know.
“After they realised they’d broke me down they put me and my son together. So then having my son there was like a treat. I wanna keep having my son there – then I know he’s safe.
“They would give us 99p chicken and chips – one snap box with two little pieces of chicken and chips to share. Most of the time, my son would refuse to eat it. He would make me eat it cos I was the one who had to get up and do the work. I’d be crying and be begging him, but he don’t wanna eat it, he’d refuse to eat it.
“I spent the first year being rebellious, but then you don’t realise it, but you just be complacent, just go about doing it even to the point when I couldn’t work any more. For three and a half years, I just complied and did what they wanted, but I got weaker and weaker and weaker, and I couldn’t get the work done any more.
“One morning, I just snapped cos I was too weak to lift the blocks, too weak to do anything. This guy was just cursing me, calling me all kind of names and then I think they realised. They brought my son in the van and tell me to get in. They drove us out to a strange neighbourhood and dumped me and my son out on to the street and left us there.
“I was so sick, but this old man get me to the hospital. I was very ill – I be in the hospital for four months. I missed my son. We were going to go home together, but because I was so sick, he went back without me. It’s not easy now talking about that part of my story.
“I needed somewhere safe to go when I come out of hospital and it started to look like I be spending Christmas in hospital cause there ain’t no place for me to go. Then I got a call to say they got somewhere. When I came to the safehouse, I was so thankful I was alive, thankful I didn’t die, thankful I found some place where I could spend Christmas, thankful that the place looks clean, that the staff look OK, I can see food for the first time. I got to call my son and told him I was alright.
“And then I got depressed. I was like, what the hell, I miss my family…these walls keep coming in, I was like, what is my purpose, why am I here, why am I still alive, what am I gonna do with myself now?
“But I got my ‘big brother’ James here for me, this man brought me through it all. I wouldn’t trust another person. What we have I don’t wanna do again. We can talk about everything. I can tell James anything, and it doesn’t come back and hit me in the face. He say, ‘Frank, I’m here for you and only you.’”
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“My best day in the house was when James came to me and said I wanna know what real actual slavery means to you and it came flooding – everything came back, and I remember at the end we were both there crying, two grown men actually crying and that was the day of relief.
“This is a place of healing; this is a place to find what route you want so you can dispatch out. You have a wonderful support team who have a whole list of ideas and support plans where they can sit down with you and review them with you. You have wonderful facilities, you don’t have to worry about bills, you don’t have to worry about nobody kicking down your door, it’s a safe environment. You got time to think why am I here? Where do I wanna be?
“Since being in the house, I’ve had total strangers showing me compassion and love. I came back from the dead, believe me. I was far from my country and my friends, and these people showed me compassion and love.”
As I came to understand more about the issue, including through a visit to an Unseen safehouse, I knew I needed to do more to stop this abuse and exploitation.
For the last five years of my Civil Service career, I was the Modern Slavery Senior Policy Advisor in the Home Office and led on development of the Modern Slavery Act, including the transparency in supply chains provision and business guidance.
I joined Unseen to lead the development of the Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, and Unseen’s work with businesses. I am regularly called upon to present at national and international conferences and use my experience of working with Ministers to influence other governments internationally to take action to address modern slavery and, in particular, business supply chain issues.
In my spare time I enjoy keeping fit, music, reading and travelling.
What ultimately compelled me to act was a report on how people from Eastern Europe were being trafficked through Bristol airport to the USA. Kate Garbers, who went on to be an Unseen Director, and I wrote to all the city councillors, MPs and the Police Chief Constable challenging them on the issue. The challenge came back to us: this city needs safe housing for trafficked women. And so Unseen began.
But we never wanted Unseen to be just about safe housing. We wanted to end slavery once and for all, and that remains our driving focus.
I chaired the working group for the Centre for Social Justice’s landmark report “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. This is now acknowledged as the catalyst behind the UK’s Modern Slavery Act of 2015. It was a great honour to be awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours that year. On the other hand, I’ve also been described as “the loveliest disrupter you could ever hope to meet”.
This job has taken me from building flat-pack furniture for safehouses, to working with businesses to address slavery in supply chains, to delivering training, raising awareness and advising governments around the world.
When not at work, I enjoy travelling, spending time with my dog Harley, cooking, supporting Liverpool and Yorkshire CC, music (I’m a former DJ) and endurance events such as the Three Peaks Challenge and Tribe Freedom Runs – which I vow never to do again. Until the next time.