OPINION: BBC’s ‘The Archers’ spotlights modern slavery in our backyards

by Susan Banister | @susanbanister | Hope for Justice
Wednesday, 13 January 2021 12:24 GMT

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The radio drama has raised awareness about the reality of human trafficking in Britain

Susan Banister is the Head of Business Development at Hope for Justice and Slave-Free Alliance

Here in the UK we often think of modern slavery as something which happens in faraway countries, involving people unlike us, in environments we cannot imagine. However, the sad truth is that it happens everywhere, and not just in big cities, but in small rural communities too. It’s estimated that there are 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK alone.

It’s vitally important that we spread the word about this, and ensure that people are able to spot and report the signs of human trafficking. That’s why, when we were approached for advice and guidance by producers working on a modern slavery story for the longest-running soap opera in the world, BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, we jumped at the chance to be involved.

A storyline on this much-loved programme – which this year marks its 70th anniversary – is a fantastic opportunity to reach millions of listeners with the truth about modern slavery. Judging by the number of comments we have seen on social media since, a great many listeners had been unaware that people are being trafficked into countryside areas like the programme’s fictional setting of Ambridge.

It was crucial that the picture of human trafficking painted by The Archers was as realistic as possible. Hope for Justice experts worked with and advised the programme’s producers on a wide range of key elements in the scripts and overall storyline, including the background of Blake, Kenzie and Jordan, the three characters who were trafficked and held prisoner by builders.

Something that surprised many Archers fans was that the three men were British-born; people often think that trafficking has to involve someone being moved from their own country to another.

This is an important myth to address. British people are regularly trafficked within the UK because like people of all nationalities, they can be made vulnerable in a number of different ways. In the ensuing plot, all three characters had experienced homelessness and poverty, and have learning or mental health disabilities. One of the characters had been in care.

These are vulnerabilities that are very commonly exploited by traffickers, who will offer a way out and a ‘better’ life, promising well-paid work, food and accommodation.

We advised the programme’s team about the types of work that the characters would most likely be trafficked into, based on our experience of rescuing and supporting thousands of people in a similar situation. Most often these jobs will be manual labour, including construction, agricultural and domestic work, as well the sex trade.

It was also important for the programme to reflect the extreme levels of control that traffickers hold over their victims. Without knowing about this, it can be difficult for people to understand why people who have been trafficked don’t leave and seek out a better situation.

People are effectively held prisoner. They are often forced to live on site, are given very little food, money or means of communication, are not allowed out and are made suspicious of the police and other forms of authority who could in fact help them.

Working on The Archers storyline was a way for us to start to break down some common and indeed dangerous misconceptions about modern slavery in the UK, and we hope this important work will have a lasting impact.

We at Hope for Justice know that many listeners have been very moved by the stories of Blake, Kenzie and Jordan, and that important conversations about modern slavery have been sparked for the first time in homes all over the country.

Our hope is that fans of The Archers will join our movement to change lives and end slavery, by continuing to spread the word about the warning signs of human trafficking, as well as looking out for them in their own communities.