For over 30 years, we have been marking the 2 December as the United Nation’s International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that there are more than 40 million people throughout the world who are victims of modern slavery1.
As another year passes, we are told of the political commitment in the UK to end the repugnant trade while at the same time reading almost daily accounts of victims’ ordeals in the news. It is tempting to think that we in the UK are doing all we can; that the prevalence of this criminal activity is an insurmountable problem.
But, of course, modern slavery doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham, we are likely to regularly encounter (or be a few steps away from encountering) victims of modern slavery - in beauty salons, car washes, restaurants, dry cleaners etc. And that’s before we even start to think about the construction of the properties we live in and the goods we buy.
Modern slavery is prevalent exactly because it generates huge profits; the ILO found that the profit generated from the trade in 2012 was $150 billion2. Tackling it requires a commitment from business to put its prevention above profit. Of course, what that really means is that we need commitment by governments to regulation and structures which put those who are vulnerable to exploitation ahead of other interests.
Theresa May said we must address ‘the greatest human rights issue of our time’3 but is this government implementing a framework which improves the situation or makes people more vulnerable? The very dreadful human consequences of the hostile environment polices are well documented. In truth, is pursuing this policy not a greater concern for the government than tackling modern slavery at its roots?
Organisations working in this sector have long been saying that insecure immigration status often contributes to a person’s vulnerability to trafficking and re-trafficking. Just one area in which this is the case is the visas of domestic workers.
In 2012, the government made significant changes to domestic worker visas, despite warnings that these changes would increase abuse4 ; the changes meant that (a) domestic workers coming to the UK were tied to their employer and (b) they could only stay for a maximum of six months with no right to renewal after this time. It effectively prevented these workers from challenging abusive treatment by their employer. If any worker left their employer they would be in breach of their visa and therefore at risk of deportation.5
Despite two parliamentary committees finding during the passage of the bill that the imposition of the visa tie increased domestic workers’ vulnerability, the government didn’t take the opportunity to rectify this during the enacting of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. They did, in response to a report by James Ewins QC6 , relax the requirements slightly in 2016 by allowing workers to change employers within the original 6 month stay only. Kalayaan, an organisation which supports migrant workers, views this as plainly insufficient; 6 months is not long enough for people in vulnerable situations to be able to find suitable or less exploitative employment.7
So just how bleak is the UK picture?
It is, of course, important to recognise each positive step forward: a recent successful legal challenge to the government’s unilateral decision to reduce financial support given to recognised victims of modern slavery means that the previous level of support will be reinstated.8
However, structural change to the immigration framework and employment protections is necessary. Until those who are vulnerable to exploitation are put ahead of other government and business interests, for all the rhetoric in the world, things won’t really change.