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ANALYSIS - Is landmark UK law falling short in fight against modern slavery?

by Ana Ionova | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 19 March 2018 02:00 GMT

Shadows of pedestrians are cast on the street with that of a London Underground sign as they walk to a tube station in London January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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Three years on, Britain's Modern Slavery Act has been hailed for shining a spotlight on the drive to end modern slavery, with other nations mulling similar action to combat the crime. But has it done enough?

By Ana Ionova

LONDON, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain is uncovering more cases of slavery from the sex trade to car washes but it is not doing enough to jail traffickers, support victims or drive businesses to take action, activists said on the third anniversary of a landmark law.

Britain has been regarded as an international leader in the fight against human trafficking since passing the Modern Slavery Act in March 2015 to tackle a crime affecting an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide.

The law introduced life sentences for traffickers, measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved, and made large companies scrutinise their supply chains for forced labour.

Three years on the law has been hailed for shining a spotlight on the drive to end modern slavery with other nations - from the Netherlands and India to Australia - mulling similar action to combat the estimated $150 billion a year crime.

But anti-slavery activists said the law has not yet made a serious dent in the illicit trade in Britain where at least 13,000 people are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.

"The Act has done a lot to raise awareness," said Kate Roberts, head of office at the Human Trafficking Foundation.

"Unfortunately, in practice, we're still waiting to really see many tangible outcomes from it yet," she added.

Police in England and Wales recorded 2,255 modern slavery crimes in 2016/17, up from 870 cases in 2015/16, according to Kevin Hyland, Britain's first anti-slavery commissioner, who was appointed in late 2014.

From Asian gangs trafficking women to Britain to work in the sex trade, to vulnerable Polish workers being lured to England into low-paid jobs, newspaper headlines have illustrated the extent of the crime that was invisible until recent years.

But even as more arrests are made, authorities are struggling to jail slavemasters. Trafficking prosecutions rose to 295 in 2015/2016 from 187 in 2014/15, but have since levelled off, according to data from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Conviction rates in slavery cases fell to about 61 percent from nearly 70 percent over that period, CPS figures show.

This is partly because police are still grappling with the law and learning how to implement it effectively, Hyland said.

"We still haven't seen the numbers I would like to see," the former cop said. "But we're not actually using what we've got."

A Home Office spokeswoman said "preventing and tackling modern slavery remains a top priority" for the government and the increase in trafficking cases signals Britain is already beginning to see the result of the law.


Rights groups said the key to stamping out slavery in Britain is bolstering support for victims so they can escape the cycle of exploitation and feel safe to cooperate with police.

Although the law shields victims forced to commit crimes by their traffickers, it does not outline a timeframe or standard of care for those who have escaped slavery, leaving them open to being deported, exploited or enslaved again, activists said.

"They become easy targets again," Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It's literally releasing them back into the paws of traffickers."

The British government said last year it would overhaul the way it handles potential victims, with a raft of changes including drop-in services and extra shelter.

In a landmark judgment this month, Britain's High Court ruled that former prostitutes should not be forced to reveal their convictions as some were sex trafficking survivors and criminal records stopped them from getting other jobs.

But rights groups said a government decision recently to halve financial aid for slavery survivors to just 37 pounds per week could make them even more vulnerable.

Lawmakers are mulling a bill to ensure victims have support - as well as the right to remain in Britain - for a whole year.

More stability and better long-term support for victims could also improve conviction rates, campaigners said, by making those who have been trafficked more open to working with police.

"Unless victim protection is enshrined in law, you can forget it when it comes to securing convictions of traffickers," said Parosha Chandran, a top anti-slavery barrister in Britain.

The CPS called slavery cases among the most challenging to prosecute and said it is training prosecutors to build better cases against enslavers without relying on victim testimony.

"(Modern slavery) cases have many complex features. Victims are often involved in criminal activity, there may be jurisdictional issues, victims are vulnerable, and there may be cultural and language barriers," a CPS spokeswoman said.


Campaigners said Britain has been too soft on businesses.

Under the law, firms with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds must issue a statement outlining steps they have taken to identify the risk of forced labour within their operations.

But there are no penalties for companies that fail to do so - and they can meet requirements by stating they are doing nothing to spot or curb the threat of slavery, activists said.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), a pressure group, estimated only about two-thirds of up to 11,000 firms required to comply have issued statements so far.

"There is a very low level of compliance that we're seeing," said Patricia Carrier of the BHRRC.

"And generally, when companies do publish statements, most of the reporting is of very low quality."

This is often because companies fear competitors will use information about their supply chains to gain an advantage.

Meanwhile, monitoring compliance is difficult for watchdogs and consumers since there is no complete public list of all the companies required to produce statements, rights groups said.

The Home Office said it is working to raise awareness of the law through a campaign targeting 10,000 businesses.

"While we want to see businesses look deeper into their supply chains, we understand new legislation takes time to embed," the spokeswoman for the Home Office said.

There are some signs the law might be spurring better practices as more large brands are now training their suppliers to spot slavery, creating a trickle-down effect, and also leading other countries to follow suit, Carrier said.

"We are seeing more legislation by countries being passed or considered around the issue," she said.

"There is a bigger international movement that is gaining momentum around transparency in supply chains."

(Reporting by Ana Ionova, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith)

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