slavery policy – how the uk has lost its way

How the Government is failing survivors

How can the UK regain its place as a world leader in tackling slavery? Scrap Part 5 of the new Nationality and Borders Bill, writes Unseen CEO, Andrew Wallis.

UK survivor of slavery

Once Britain could claim to be a world leader in its response to modern slavery. How times change.

A recent report has highlighted how Brexit and immigration policy could result in more forced labour exploitation.

Part 5 of the new Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, is one example of this “hostile” immigration policy and will be a disaster for survivors.

We in the anti-slavery movement have been saying this to ministers for some time. If only they would listen.

The Government’s stated commitment to tackling modern slavery is to be commended. In 2015 it introduced the Modern Slavery Act, which set out a range of measures for dealing with slavery and human trafficking.

One notable feature was a requirement that companies with a turnover of £36m or more, and who carry out business in the UK, must annually disclose all they are doing to tackle modern slavery.

Modern slavery law

The act was a groundbreaking piece of legislation. It showed the rest of the world that we were serious about stamping out forced labour, human trafficking, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation that cause untold misery and suffering.

Since then, apart from a slight dip during the Covid-19 lockdowns, reported numbers of those in modern slavery seeking help have increased nearly tenfold since 2012.

There is, it is worth saying, a silver lining to these figures.

As a society, we’re seeing increasing reports of exploitation as awareness grows among the public, and professionals in the police, NHS, local authorities and other frontline services. There have even been major storylines on modern slavery in the hit TV series Line of Duty and Shetland, and on Radio 4’s The Archers.

We’re lifting the lid on forced labour, the most prevalent form of slavery, as a growing number of companies take the issue seriously and look more closely at their supply chains and how they conduct their business. And we now have better reporting mechanisms, such as Unseen’s Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline, which help bring the issue out into the open.

Government going backwards on slavery

But the Government increasingly seems out of step with any progress we are making. Its increasingly “hostile environment” immigration policy is at odds with its ambition to root out modern slavery.

It focuses on a person’s right to be in the UK rather than spotting the signs of exploitation and conflates two separate issues: immigration and modern slavery.

Since Brexit, for example, all non-UK victims of exploitation identified in this country no longer have the right to remain when they leave the national referral mechanism, the Government’s support system for victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

If they’re sent back to where they were exploited in the first place, they are susceptible to being re-exploited.

There is also the risk that faced with returning to their home country, survivors will simply go underground and disappear. With no documents and no way of getting a legitimate job, it’s a green light for criminals to take advantage of them once again.

Nationality and Borders Bill – the issues

Similarly, the new Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, will discourage victims of exploitation from coming forward through fear of deportation.

Under Part 5, it also sets an unfair time limit for victims to report their exploitation – when recovery from abuse does not follow a convenient timeline.

The Bill will also disqualify from support any victim of modern slavery who is considered to be a “threat to public order”, which could include people forced to commit crimes such as forced begging and children carrying drugs in County Lines exploitation. 

And let’s not forget that while some victims of modern slavery might be from overseas and be part of the asylum system, a significant number are from the UK: in 2020, 34% of all victims of modern slavery identified in the UK were British.

Anti-slavery organisations are part of a growing number of human rights organisations opposing the Bill in its current form and pushing for significant amendments that will involve scrapping Part 5.

The modern slavery picture is complex. At the risk of stating the obvious, there are no easy solutions. But to properly address the problem, the Government needs to begin by rowing back on its Nationality and Borders Bill.

It also needs to signal to the business community that it will get tough with companies that flout their obligations under the Modern Slavery Act.

Six years on from the legislation, as of February 2022, there are still more than 5,000 qualifying UK companies that are not disclosing what they are doing to tackle modern slavery. Not one of them has ever been sanctioned.


True cost of slavery to UK

Ministers also need to better understand the full cost of what they are dealing with. The Government estimates that at any one time between 10,000 and 13,000 people are in situations of slavery in the UK. Experts, however, put the real figure in excess of 100,000.

A greater understanding of the scale of the problem should create a greater sense of urgency and focus.

And if the human suffering fails to focus politicians’ minds, consider the economic impact.

The Government’s estimates put the annual cost of modern slavery to the UK economy at £3.3bn to £4.3bn.

This is based on its assessment of 10,000 to 13,000 people in slavery. If the actual number is more than 100,000 – tenfold more – then is the genuine annual cost closer to £40bn?

That’s eyewatering by anyone’s standards. It’s time for a renewed focus and proportionate responses to modern slavery.

After all, according to the UN’s sustainable development goals, we are meant to have eradicated slavery by 2030. These latest figures throw doubt on whether we’ll even come close to achieving that.

It’s one of our last chances to influence the new Nationality and Borders Bill and avert the disaster it poses for modern slavery survivors if passed in its current form. Please write to your MP and join supporters from more than 45 other organisations to show the extent of opposition to elements of this Bill.

We’ve teamed up with fellow charities, including After Exploitation, to put together a template letter asking MPs to scrap Part 5 of the Bill and protect survivors of modern slavery. Find it by clicking the button below. 

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Justine Currell

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.

Andrew Wallis

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.