The UK’s anti-slavery commissioner, Ken Hyland, has said the police are failing to investigate cases of modern slavery- the majority of cases are simply never investigated.
3146 allegations of modern slavery were made in 2015-16 but only 884 were recorded as crimes. Some 70% of modern slavery cases seeped through the cracks as stated in Hyland’s annual report, the first of its kind since the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act last year.
Brazil was the final country to sever its ties with the transatlantic slave trade in 1888, but since then a modern form of slavery has manifested mainly, but not exclusively, in the form of forced labour, prostitution, child slavery & marriage and human trafficking.
In the UK the problem of modern slavery is very real. It’s so sewn into the linen that governs our society that it can be hard to spot let alone stop. You could pop to the local nail shop or order a takeaway later today and unknowingly contributing to the $150bn economy that is modern slavery, the world’s second-largest criminal industry, according to the UN.
Modern Slavery in the UK
In 2015 the UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act with a strong focus on protecting victims and curbing the cash-cow that exploits so many people worldwide. Hence, any business with a global turnover higher than £36m is forced to publish annual slavery reports outlining how said company has prevented slavery in their business in the past year. The aim was to clear up dodgy areas of various areas of the supply chain as Nike and Starbucks have appeared to have done in recent years.
Here’s the catch – modern slavery is such a slippery-slope in that it often overlaps with another crime like human trafficking, or failing that, often conflicts with a public goal like ensuring an economy remains attractive enough for current and potential investors. And whilst businesses are accountable to some kind of standard, criminals aren’t; issues of human trafficking, child marriage and child labour will continue to exist so long as such services are demanded.
The UK may not be rife with hundreds of companies each employing an army of 10-year-olds to sew 400 jumpers a day for 50p-an-hour, but modern slavery still exists, particularly in the form of prostitution, human trafficking and forced/underpaid labour.
The report from Ken Hyland states just 28% of modern slavery referrals ended up as crimes, meaning almost three quarters of cases extended no further than that person having the courage to report their crime. When referrals aren’t recorded as crimes, there is no investigation into what the person has said, or what the alleged criminals might have done.
For example, a woman may be illegally smuggled into this country from Europe, and then forced to become a prostitute, often meeting 20-30 different men each day, most days of the week. If she found it in her to report said case, she would do so knowing that nearly 3 out of every 4 cases of modern slavery aren’t even considered to be crimes. As such, she may never speak out again, whilst her companions who knew she spoke out will now be even more unlikely to act, causing the cycle to get deeper and deeper.
An estimate from the Home Office supposes there may be between 10,000-13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK, so the problem definitely exists, but manifests in a way that doesn’t always demand one’s sympathy or attention like other crimes might.
Hyland was appointed by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2015 to oversee the reduction of modern slavery in the UK, but his conclusions after a year on the job is that there “are too many gaps in the system for victims to fall through”.
Why isn’t more being done to prevent modern slavery in the UK?
No developed economy can get away with an obvious disregard for pertinent issues like the environment being exploited or child labour running rife in their country. However, in situations where said crimes offer a tangible, measurable and crucially, large economic benefit to both the company in question and the wider economy, things get a little murky. The policing of tax evasion suggests there may be sometimes leniency in crimes which involve major businesses, as criminals are known to typically be people after all, and not large buildings.
A lot of cases of modern slavery might involve migrants or people not typically from the UK, fostering the unwanted sense of ‘is this really our country’s problem to be wasting all our resources and time on?’ Whilst this question may seem morally void, the budget cuts forced upon the police in recent years don’t exactly allow for them to take on any and every crime.
Back in the 1980s, Thatcher viewed the police an important ally, viewing them as a tool to crush any opposition to her ideas, like the poll tax or the miners’ strike of 1984-85. In 2016 however, that relationship between government and the police is far more strained thanks to years of budget cuts amongst various other factors.
Theresa May has also said the cuts to the police will continue in future, so the police are increasingly faced with trade-offs. Put simply, they can’t solve every crime in every area, so they have to select those of highest importance. The police are driven by numbers and stats, so at a time where money is scarce and convictions are needed, would you target an easier crime to solve, or one that requires far more time and money, like disbanding a global human trafficking network?
To that end, the modern slavery industry looks set to benefit from the “chronic weakness” found in the policing of such issues, while the victims, at least for now, are stuck between a rock and a really hard place.
By Ajay Rose