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UK officials struggle to persuade suspected modern slaves to accept help

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 January 2021 19:42 GMT

A commuter walks across London Bridge during sunrise at rush hour in London, Britain, February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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Britain’s labour abuse authority says coronavirus fuels risk of exploitation for workers

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's anti-labour exploitation agency is ramping up investigations into worker abuses and uncovering more suspected victims of modern slavery, but few are choosing to receive support from the government, a report showed on Thursday.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) - which has police-style powers and inspects sites from factories to farms - has identified at least 84 potential slavery victims since last April, up from 55 during the 2019-20 financial year.

Yet only five people agreed to be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which provides support from legal aid to accommodation while the government decides whether someone is a victim of slavery, according to GLAA data.

Campaigners say the COVID-19 pandemic has driven slavery further underground, and that many foreign victims decide not to enter the NRM because it does not allow them to work while their claims are handled or guarantee asylum if they are successful.

The GLAA said the fallout from the coronavirus had left workers more vulnerable to abuses yet less likely to be identified.

"Workers in forced ... labour very often don't perceive themselves to be 'victims' – this is especially true of migrant and overseas workers," the agency said in its annual report, which examined the financial year before COVID-19 hit Britain.

"These complexities contribute to the challenges we face, for example, in persuading victims to enter the NRM," it said.

Leticia Ishibashi, networks officer for the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), said the NRM was not fit for purpose and that victims were "still falling through the cracks".

The Home Office (interior ministry) could not be reached for comment. In 2017, it announced a raft of reforms to the NRM, from extra shelter and support to an overhaul of its processes, but the system has been beset by long delays in decision-making.

The GLAA said it had increased the number of investigations it spearheaded by a quarter to 226 in 2019-20, and identified at least 15,186 potential victims of labour exploitation - more than double the total uncovered during the previous period.

The agency also made 16 arrests in this time and revoked 23 licenses of labour providers for breaches of its standards, but said prevention efforts - from raising awareness among workers to educating businesses about best practice - were also vital.

"We have always believed that enforcement alone cannot solve the issue of labour exploitation and modern slavery - preventing exploitation in the first place is crucial," GLAA director Dan Scully told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

record 10,627 suspected slaves were referred to the NRM in 2019, up by 52% from 2018, the latest official data shows.

study last year said Britain was home to at least 100,000 modern slaves - 10 times more than the official estimate - and warned 90% of victims may be going undetected.

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(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.