The UK’s Invisible Slaves

Thousands of Modern Day Slaves are Hidden in Plain Sight

Although it has been over 200 years since the end of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery sadly isn’t consigned to history - the scale of human trafficking today is staggering. There are close to 41 million people around the world entrapped in modern slavery, more than originally recorded in the 1700s. From women forced into prostitution or domestic servitude, girls focused to marry older men, children forced to support armed groups, or men forced to work in construction or agriculture, this gross violation of human rights affects people in almost every country in the world - including the UK.

Just last month, the largest-ever UK modern slavery ring, which forced more than 400 people from Poland- many of them homeless, ex-prisoners or alcoholics - to work for a pittance while their criminal masters earned £2 million, was smashed following a three year police investigation. The ring lured and then trafficked vulnerable victims to the UK with the promise of good money, but instead housed them in cramped, rat-infested accommodation and paid them as little as 50p for a day’s labour on farms, recycling centres and poultry factories. A Sunday Times investigation revealed that some of the UK’s best-known supermarkets, including Waitrose and Marks and Spencer, have been selling goods from supply chairs that used workers from the human trafficking network. 

Meanwhile, the gang’s bosses enjoyed a lavish lifestyle off the back of the exploitation, wearing expensive clothes and driving luxury cars.  If any complained, gang enforcers would humiliate, threaten or beat them up, while “house spies” – previously trafficked individuals turned trusted informers – kept an eye on the workers. One man who complained about living conditions and pay had his arm broken and was refused medical care, before being ejected from the accommodation because his injury left him unable to work. The gang’s network - made up of 5 men and 3 men -  collapsed after two victims fled their captors in 2014 and spoke with charity modern-day slavery charity Hope for Justice who then worked with Anti-slavery investigators and West Midlands Police to uncover the shocking brutality against those who stepped out of line. Investigators believe it is the largest such criminal prosecution of this type in Europe, to date. 


This unprecedented scale of this case meant that discourse on modern slavery entered the mainstream media, yet nobody really knows how many victims of perpetrators of this crime there are in Britain. The government believes that there are about 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK, while earlier this year the Global Slavery Index released a much higher estimate of 136,000.

In 2017, over 5,000 people were referred to British authorities as potential victims of slavery. Up one third from 2016. This includes 2,000 children. Recent data shows that there is a spike in the numbers of child slavery victims identified, this is largely to do with the fact that children are starting to be identified as victims of country lines drug trafficking and other forms of criminal exploitation, and also that more unaccompanied child asylum seekers are being recognised as having faced trafficking or modern slavery.

In the under two years since anti-slavery charity Unseen established the Modern Slavery Helpline, it has received over 10000 calls and online reports, working with the police, government, businesses, and the public to help people escape situations of exploitation. 

While these statistics provide a snapshot of slavery in the UK, it doesn’t paint the full picture. Adam Hewitt of Hope for Justice told Majalla that as slavery is a hidden crime it is difficult to know the exact number of victims but it's enough that is “affecting every town and city and region.” Many people are unaware, however, that slavery continues to exist in the UK. Research by the Co-op Group this year found that nearly 20% of British people are unaware of modern slavery and 35% don’t think that it exists in their home own or city. Hewitt says that while awareness amongst professionals and the general public has improved and knowledge is slowly becoming more widespread since the establishment of Hope for Justice in 2008, the issue is still not completely widely known with a many of people believing that it is an evil of the past or something that happens in other countries like North Korea, but not in the UK.

Modern slavery can take many forms but there are four broad ways in which perpetrators seek to exploit victims in the UK. Labour exploitation involves people being forced into working long hours for no or very low pay, and usually in poor working conditions. Often victims can’t leave because they have built heavy debts to their ‘employer’. Domestic servitude involves victims working in a private home where they are treated badly, humiliated, and subjected to unbearable conditions and forced to work long hours or little or no pay. Victims can also be exploited sexually by being coerced into sex work or sexually abusive situations. This includes child sexual exploitation. Criminal exploitation involves the exploitation of person to commit a crime, such as shoplifting, benefit fraud, eternising to sham marriages, for someone else’s gain. There is growing trend is to use children to transport dugs between cities and rural areas. 

Communications Manager Hewitt says that UK nationals make up the biggest group of potential victims and the most common source countries outside of the UK include Albania, Poland, Romania, Vietnam and Nigeria. “Vietnam is particularly linked to forced cannabis cultivation and the beauty industry, mainly nail salons. Nigeria is often associated with trafficking for sexual exploitation,” he said.

Industries identified as most high risk in the UK involve informal and lower skilled work such as the beauty industry, car washes and lower skilled factory, agriculture and construction work, painting and decorating, waste and recycling processing and catering. 

Hewitt says that what most victims have in common is vulnerability whether that comes in the form of homelessness, deprivation, a recent breakdown of a marriage, people who recently left the military or prison or an institution that previously defined their lives in some way and are now left with nothing. 


A rising number of modern slavery victims are being identified by authorities but their masters are not being prosecuted ( National Crime Agency )

According to The London charity Hestia, there has been a rise in the exploitation of homeless people. It found that over 50% of the people it has helped last year who had been forced to work on farms, construction sites and cannabis farms, had slept rough after escaping their traffickers ad 92% had mental health issues.

Traffickers use manipulation or false promises of stability, good quality accommodation, high-paying jobs, food, transport, and support for anyone who needs help with documentation. Hewitt told Majalla that often in the first few days things may seem normal but it never takes long for the reality of overcrowded, dirty, squalid accommodation that lacks of essential utilities, electricity, water or a decent place to sleep to start coming to the fore.

The slave masters and human traffickers coerce and control their victims, keeping them in slavery for weeks, months or years at a time. The signs of human exploitation can be extremely subtle; violence, threats and intimidation are often used by offenders to silence their victims and keep them compliant. They often feel unable to leave or report the crime through fear or intimidation and may not even recognise themselves as a victim. Hewitt recalls once such domestic servitude case that stuck with him over the years involving a couple from Nigeria who worked for the NHS. “To the outside world they seemed like a normal respectable couple but behind closed doors they were using this young boy as a slave for many, many years until he was an adult man. He didn’t know what was happening to him or how strange it was until he watched something on TV about modern slavery which made him realise what was happening to him and reached out for help,” he said.


Britain has described itself as a world leader in the anti-slavery drive, having passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. The Home office revealed last year that slavery is costing Britain up to $4.3 billion a year, although campaigners say the figure is likely to be higher with the government underestimating the number of people being wrongly detailed as slaves. Publishing the report, the Home Office said it would launch a review of the Modern Slavery Act. Announcing the review, the crime minister, Victoria Atkins, said: “This awful crime is evolving, it is our responsibility as citizens, businesses and governments to do all we can to stop exploitation. This independent review will help us identify what more we can do to tackle this terrible, global injustice by enhancing the Modern Slavery Act where necessary.”

Legislation currently requires every business with an annual turnover of £36m and above to publish a statement on its website outlining what it is doing to prevent and tackle modern slavery in its operations and supply chain. Campaigners have criticised the measure as toothless. 

Hewitt says that although many businesses have complied, enforcement of this aspect of the act has been weak.

The review will also look at what else can be done to strengthen the legislation and minimise the risk that goods and services available in the UK are produced through forced labour and slavery.


Hewitt points out that there have been some tangible improvement since the act came into law. “The act brought together a complicated set of legislation and very different crimes all into one act. It has increased potential sentences that judges can hand down and the police have been given more resources,” he said.

The number of modern slavery prosecutions rose by a quarter last year but make up a fraction of tens of thousands of cases flagged to authorities. Looking forward Hewitt wants to see more prosecutions and the kind of sentences that will properly deter traffickers. He says at the moment too many of them see this as a low risk, high reward crime. “But it really is a barbaric crime against human beings and some of the stories we hear at the charity are just shocking,” he said.

Support for the often extremely vulnerable people that escapee a situation of slavery is far from what it should be. Often they need medical treatment, legal advice and mental health support. Most of all they need stability while they work out how to rebuild their lives. The government currently provides short term support, usually for up to 45 days. Data published this week found that the UK had denied 752 of former slaves the right to stay in the country and access to support or care services, despite authorities confirming that they were trafficking victims. All were from non-European countries such as Vietnam and Nigeria, according to the report by the British Red Cross, Hestia and Ashiana, charities that support slavery survivors. The charities urged the government to extend the support period to 12 months, and to let survivors of slavery stay in the country for at least 30 months in order to rebuild their lives.

Hewitt explains that not having the right to access help leaves survivors at risk of fresh exploitation and means that human traffickers and slave masters go unprosecuted. “The next step we see now is to also improve victim care because because we found that victims who are properly looked after, who were supported into new lives and opportunities tend to feel safe enough to give evidence against those who do this to them by giving witness statements and standing up in court testify. That is what ultimately means the traffickers get convicted whereas too often we see victims aren't properly supported and are left on their own after a short period of help and that can mean that that vital intelligence evidence never comes to light and that person could end up again destitute or even re-trafficked,” he explains.

“Estimates suggest that there are more people living in a form of slavery today than were enslaved during the world parts of the transatlantic slave trade more than 200 years ago. That fact alone should really shock a lot of people into action.”