OPINION: Five years after the UK Modern Slavery Act, it’s time to ramp it up

by Jakub Sobik | Anti-Slavery International
Monday, 30 March 2020 09:32 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: The Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, together with walkers are seen reflected in a puddle in London, Britain, March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville.

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If we want to end slavery in Britain, we need to make sure anyone who could be exploited has options and access to justice and the law

Jakub Sobik is a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International.

Hailed as a breakthrough on tackling slavery by some, cursed by others for missing major opportunities, the UK Modern Slavery Act was enacted five years ago last week.

It was a watershed in this country’s approach to tackle this form of abuse. It included a range of measures including specifying criminal offences related to modern slavery, modest victim protection and child protection measures, as well as completely new requirements placed on big businesses to report on their efforts to prevent forced and child labour in their supply chains.  

So how has it worked?

In 2018 nearly 7,000 people had been identified as potential victims; four times than in 2013. In the year ending March 2019, the police in England and Wales recorded over 5,000 modern slavery offences.

No doubt, these are truly horrifying numbers. However, compare it to the tens of thousands people – as estimated by the National Crime Agency - trapped and exploited in our country and we begin to understand what little distance we’ve traversed. Add to that the fact that only 205 people suspected of perpetrating trafficking crimes were referred for prosecutions, and you begin to see that very few people who were exploited have a chance to see their traffickers brought to justice.

More worrying is what happens when people are identified by authorities as victims. For them, this is the opportunity to move on from their trauma, receive support and transition into a new life with more resilience and in freedom.

Yet, the support they receive is often far from adequate, and those from overseas are more likely to be treated as immigration offenders than victims of serious crime. More than 500 people were detained in 2018 alone and many deported back to trafficking hotspots such as Albania and Nigeria, where the risk of re-trafficking and harm are very real.

Many survivors, even if they get support from the UK authorities, do not have permission to work. Instead, they spend years in limbo, waiting for months or even years for decisions on their victim status. It pushes people to look for jobs, often illegally, which makes them vulnerable to be exploited again.

The UK system isn’t always working in the interests of the people it’s meant to support, and it’s telling that many trafficked people prefer not to engage at all and end up remaining in exploitation.

The Act aims to be tough on traffickers. But being tough on traffickers means that we need to support people they exploited in order to bring the traffickers to justice. Prosecuting ones’ traffickers can hardly be a priority when their basic needs are not met. So, cases cannot be built, and traffickers carry on.

Today, as the world responds to COVID-19, these failings are laid bare as people without secure jobs are likely to be forced to continue to work, and people with insecure immigration status are more likely to be fearful of accessing healthcare.

The Modern Slavery Act was a major positive move, but if we want to end modern slavery, we need to ramp up our efforts across the UK and beyond.

We need to address the issues which keep people in exploitation and prevent them leaving, speaking out or reporting their exploiters to the authorities.  We need to improve the employment laws to empower people to challenge exploitation.

Traffickers rarely target people with options, people who have a safety net, who can leave, who can go to the authorities and who will be believed. If we want to end slavery, we need to make sure anyone who could be exploited has options and access to justice and the law.

For non-British victims we need to end the inhumane hostile immigration environment, make sure survivors have a right to work and study, and a safety net they need to rebuild their lives. Most importantly the UK needs to put survivors of slavery at the centre of any approach. It is only by working with those who have survived slavery that we can learn what could have helped to keep them free. 

In 1807 the UK, followed by the rest of the world made changes to the practice of slave trading that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier. This week, the world has responded to COVID-19 by making changes which would have seemed un-achievable just a few weeks ago.

We believe the UK does have the means to design lasting improvements to the Act, so that future generations can say that we protected thousands of people from the horrors of modern slavery.

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