Jessica (whose name has been changed for anonymity) arrived in the UK in 2017 – bright-eyed and hopeful – for opportunities in the promised land. Leaving her three other children back home, she brought her youngest son with her to embark on their shiny new life. A family friend from her village had arranged paid work for her. She was promised more money than she could have ever dreamt of earning in Lithuania – how could she say no?
Yet, all that glittered did not shine of gold. Jessica was in for a sobering wake-up call. Ruthlessly exploited, she was forced to work punishing hours in a factory during the day and to stay in accommodation owned by her traffickers at night, cementing the fact that there could be no escape. Her earnings were withheld and treated as a form of “debt bondage” to cover the costs of her and her son’s journey to the UK.
Jessica’s young son was bullied by their traffickers to commit vehicle theft and assault with other young boys also trapped in the dark web of exploitation.
After a year, Jessica finally reported her case of modern-slavery to the police. She and her son were transferred to various safe houses before arriving at Medaille Trust’s family project in London. There, Jessica was able to receive a range of much-needed support such as finding a job, a new home, re-integrating her son back into education, and re-learning parenting skills after her trauma saw her spiral into heavy drinking.
Modern slavery is a lucrative, immoral enterprise that has been growing exponentially in the UK. Feeding on a voracious demand for cheap services across many sectors and the general presumption that slavery was abolished over 200 years ago, many are unaware of how abundantly it thrives in Great Britain. This means that British citizens are not vigilant against it in their own communities, and so, traffickers are able to operate in plain sight.
Medaille Trust is the largest provider of safe house accommodation for victims of modern slavery in the UK – running nine safe houses across England by supporting women, men, and families rescued from human traffickers.
Medaille Trust’s CEO, Garry Smith explained, “The need for this support is increasing for both positive and negative reasons. Positively, more victims are being identified due to increased awareness among civil society, businesses, the police, and public services – with much thanks to the world-leading 2015 Modern Slavery Act. Negatively, more victims are being identified because trafficking into the UK is on the rise.”
Unbeknownst to most, modern slavery reaches every community in every flourishing western country. Coming from poverty-stricken areas where work opportunities are sparse, victims are especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation. Offered seemingly good work prospects, they are lured to the UK on the premise of the “better life”, only to find themselves toiling in dire conditions with little to no pay. The threat of violence – to themselves or their families – is used to keep them in place. Furthermore, language barriers and lack of funds entrap them further, with little opportunity for escape.
Most commonly, trafficking can be found within industries synonymous with manual labour such as car washes, agriculture, construction, and factories. Women and girls are also prime targets for sexual exploitation.
“Today, slavery in the UK doesn’t look like people bound in chains. It looks like domestic and construction workers; nail bars and brothels; car washes, and fruit pickers. This is a vast business – there are an estimated 136,000 victims in the UK. Most remain hidden in plain sight – only 6,933 potential victims were referred in the UK system in 2018,” Smith said.
In July, 8 people were jailed after the largest modern-slavery ring was uncovered in the UK. The gang, led by a Polish family, orchestrated the trafficking of around 400 people who ranged from the age of 17 to 60. The traffickers raked in millions whilst their victims often worked for as little as 50p a day. Forced to live in squalor and rat-infested accommodation, they frequently faced starvation during their tenure on farms, factories, and recycling centres. The operation, which ran from June 2012 to October 2017, was described by presiding Judge Mary Stacey as “the most ambitious, extensive and prolific.”
“There needs to be a continued and increased awareness-raising programme throughout the UK,” Smith added. “This should tackle three areas: warning the vulnerable about the risks of trafficking; educating the public on the scale of modern slavery and how to spot the signs in their own communities; and ensuring that professionals in public services who may come into contact with victims are as equally well trained on how to respond to potential cases of modern slavery as they are to other safeguarding situations such as child abuse.”