Abolition doesn’t necessarily mean eradication. At least this is the lesson the history of slavery is trying to teach us, because despite being abolished in the UK in 1833, it continues to ruin lives in 21st Century Britain. And as the recent jailing of eight gang members in the West Midlands reveals, it still serves as a big counterweight to any notion that the UK is becoming an increasingly humane or free country.
Between 2012 and 2017, the eight members of the now-jailed gang clandestinely operated a slave network comprising 400 people, whose forced servitude and labor earned them around £2 million across the five-year period. They enticed their victims to migrate from Poland to England, where said victims were promised gainful employment and a ‘better life,’ only to be coerced into remaining in vermin-infested accommodation and into working extremely low-level jobs.
This story is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Walk Free Foundation, which publishes the Global Slavery Index, there were approximately 136,000 people living in modern slavery in the UK in 2018. This means there are 136,000 people residing in the UK who have been unwillingly pushed into situations involving domestic servitude, enforced labor, organ harvesting, sexual exploitation, or other forms of exploitation.
Given that the National Crime Agency (NCA) reports just under 7,000 victims of modern slavery for 2018, it’s clear that the UK government is underestimating the scale of this issue and failing to address it fully. Admittedly, it was responsible for seeing the Modern Slavery Act through Parliament in 2015, a piece of legislation which established an anti-slavery commissioner for the UK, which bans prosecutions of slavery victims who were forced to commit crimes, and which requires corporations to report on how they’re preventing the use of slavery in their supply chains. However, even the government’s own figures have revealed a jump in the number of potential victims reported since the act’s passage, surging from 3,804 in 2016 to 5,142 in 2017, and then to 6,993 last year.
There is, in other words, a need for more to be done to tackle the insidious problem of modern slavery, and a need for the government to take more than a narrow, legislative and criminal view of the issue. This doesn’t apply only to the UK’s unenviable record on modern slavery, but also to many other developed nations, since increases in slavery numbers, in human trafficking or in risk factors for slavery have also been recorded in other EU nations over the past few years, as well as in Australia and the United States. The problem therefore needs to be tackled in structural terms, since, as the International Labour Organisation said in 2016, “poverty and lack of education” have a direct causal relationship with slavery.
A big clue to how modern slavery should be tacked can be gleaned from the statistics describing its social composition. As the 2018, Global Slavery Index reveals, 71% of the victims of modern slavery are female, indicating that discrimination and relative deprivation is a big driver of modern slavery. Because women generally lack the opportunities, the social standing and the freedom of movement of men, they’re more likely to be vulnerable enough to become victims. Similarly, the Global Slavery Index also reveals that vulnerability is exacerbated by poverty, by troubled home lives, and by social exclusion.
To return to the UK, British children and adults are also victimized by modern slavery, which is all-too often characterized as being restricted to immigrants. According to ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking), at least 28 percent of children suspected or identified as having been trafficked into slavery have gone missing from social care at least once. Likewise, the Global Slavery Index also states in its 2018 report on the UK that gangs often target children who “are vulnerable due to neglect at home, previous experiences of sexual and physical abuse, parental drug and alcohol use, or low self-esteem.” And in the international context more generally, the Global Slavery Index evaluates vulnerability in terms of five dimensions: “governance issues, lack of basic needs, inequality, disenfranchised groups, and effects of conflict.”
This is why the UK – and other nations – need to take more than a simple legislative, crime-focused approach to modern slavery. It and other nations need to work to close gender gaps, to reduce inequality and poverty, and they also need to reconsider their immigration policies, which can often make it harder for at-risk individuals to seek help. As the Global Slavery Index concludes in its latest survey, Europe has seen “a tightening of migration policy and a reduction in the protections available to migrants in recent years [… this] renders these individuals more vulnerable to modern slavery.”
So while nations such as the UK can be applauded for passing modern slavery legislation, they also need to be vigorously reminded that this kind of legislation is only the beginning. Because without a structural, systemic approach to slavery, more cases like the one recently closed in the West Midlands will unfortunately have to be opened.