It is estimated that there are as many as 13,000 people trapped in modern slavery in the United Kingdom, relentlessly suffering at the hands of ruthless slave masters. Many find this difficult to comprehend. Where is this happening? Is it really taking place in our communities? And on our streets?
The United Kingdom is a country globally recognised for democracy and freedom; it is understandable to find this level of exploitation difficult to comprehend. Why don’t we see it? Are we missing modern slavery before our eyes or is it hidden behind closed doors?
It is both. Slavery exists on our local high streets. There’s a chance the young man begging, who you pass on your daily commute, has been forced into labour exploitation. There’s a possibility the nail technician in your local salon, who speaks minimal English to you, has been coerced and trafficked. And it’s probable that the group of men, who wash your car for £5 or less, are enslaved. Meanwhile modern slavery can be kept hidden in nearby fields, factories, construction sites, brothels and even residential homes, where families have been known to hold domestic servants in the most abusive conditions.
The driver behind this brutal trade in human life is greed, with organised criminals globally earning over $150 billion a year from this illicit crime. And with historically little risk of being caught, modern slavery has become a crime of choice.
To understand where each and every one of us can make a difference and how we can play our part, we must first fully acknowledge this as a criminal phenomenon that can unwittingly interact in our daily lives. We must become intolerant to the presence of modern slavery by making a moral choice – let’s stop using substandard car washes, let’s question the price of our products, let’s look twice at the rough sleeper begging on the street...
Let’s choose to open our eyes to see whether those on farms and construction sites are wearing appropriate clothing and using appropriate gear. Let’s choose to think carefully when we notice a worker who appears injured or malnourished. Let’s choose to stop what we are doing when we see residential homes with curtains constantly closed and countless clients visiting the premises night after night. Let’s choose to give attention to who takes our cash at nail salons and whether the technicians doing the work are open to conversation. Let’s choose to notice when numerous people are being transported from a single home to work in fields for hours on end.
When we really think about it, would we choose to fund inhumane treatment of workers who are abused and exploited, all in the name of convenience? Would we choose to accept that a life of forced labour and exploitation justifies a bargain? Of course not. Combating this crime and defending justice depends on our choices. Let’s choose freedom.
When citizens and communities spot signs and raise questions, it demands a response. Police, local councils and governments cannot ignore this plight. I want 2017 to be the year that this hidden crime moves from the shadows into the light, where perpetrators are exposed and victims are rescued. But this cannot be achieved without society’s support.
The United Kingdom has made a firm commitment to be a world leader in the fight against modern slavery, with Prime Minister Theresa May stating this is “the greatest human rights issue of our time.” The recent creation of the Prime Minister’s Taskforce should lead to a response commensurate to the harm this crime creates, so it is essential that communities contribute to intelligence informing authorities of signs they see.
We still have a great deal to do, but I am encouraged by the increase in policing operations and commitment of the NHS, local authorities, immigration agencies and the many organisations who provide some of the most compassionate care for people at their greatest time of need. I would ask that all communities join this fight.
Together let’s make 2017 a year where we turn the tide, a year where the fear experienced in modern slavery cases moves from the vulnerable victim to the perpetrator, fearful of the punishment they face. Together let’s ensure that those who commit these cruel crimes find themselves behind bars where they belong, and those who suffer in silence are granted the freedom they so rightly deserve.