Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

By Keith Best

Interactive Learning Session – Thursday 8 February 2024 at UPF (UK), 43 Lancaster Gate, London

In January 2021 the House of Commons published the “UK Parliament Modern Slavery & Human Trafficking Policy” which states that if any member of the Parliamentary Community is discovered to have breached this policy, then appropriate action will be taken and if any contractor is found to have breached this policy, then appropriate action will be taken; this may range from considering the possibility of breaches being remediated, to terminating agreements.

The document defines modern slavery as the illegal exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain, and involves people being coerced and forced into providing a service to others. It is a crime that affects people of all genders, ages (including children) and ethnicities and is a violation of fundamental human rights. Some estimates suggest that there are approximately 40 million people living in slavery across the world, many of whom will be working to produce the goods and services which are bought and sold every day. The Home Office estimated that there were over 10 thousand potential victims in the UK alone in 2013. Worldwide, the International Labour Organisation estimates hundreds of billions of illegal profits are generated by traffickers per year. Unscrupulous businesses who use slave labour undercut businesses and if this horrendous crime is to be eradicated from the UK and the rest of the world, government and businesses must work together.

It states clearly that Parliament adopts zero tolerance to modern slavery and human trafficking and is concerned that it is likely to exist in the supply chains of the goods and services purchased by public bodies. Parliament is committed to ensuring that taxpayers’ money does not inadvertently fund this criminal activity and is committed to protecting vulnerable workers in its own supply chains from exploitation or harm.

So what can we as ordinary citizens do to assist in eradicating this blot on the face of humanity? One way is to be vigilant and naturally suspicious. We have various tools at our disposal – we can speak and write about the issue, as shareholders we can increasingly hold boards to account for how they source their goods and services. We have already seen several expressions of that and manufacturers are only too well aware that they need to respond to public concern about ethical sourcing or lose their customers. The Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015 and became a talisman for Prime Minister Theresa May.

When you ask someone about trafficking they will usually narrow it down to those who are currently exploiting vulnerable asylum seekers by charging them vast sums of money to have the privilege of travelling in an overcrowded and leaky small dinghy to make the hazardous journey across the Channel – the world’s busiest sea-lane. Yet trafficking has a far wider meaning and modern slavery can be found in the workplace, in factories and small businesses often taking advantage of the most vulnerable. Victims can be found in the brothels of the metropoles but also in unexpected places. Usually, those who benefit from this obscene trade equivalent to indentured labour will have a hold over the victim – retention of their passport or fear of exposure if they are uncertain of their legal status. Often agreed payments will be withheld until the completion of all work thereby leaving the victim penniless in the interim.

This is a problem both domestically in the UK and worldwide. To combat it needs international co-operation because, as we saw recently with a gang that was sending asylum seekers across the Channel, these criminals operate transnationally – boats purchased in Turkey, stored in Germany and used in France. National security forces are insufficient and that is why we need to find ever closer co-operation with Interpol, Europol and other international agencies.

One source (the Borgen Project) itemises ten facts of modern-day slavery. First, slavery is more rampant now than it has ever been. The numbers prove that there are more slaves in the world now than there has ever been throughout all of history, and those numbers are only growing. There are more enslaved labourers than trafficked sex slaves. One-fourth of the slave population consists of children. Kids are being forced into slavery around the globe every day. Forty-six percent of people know their trafficker. With almost half of enslaved persons having been trafficked by someone they knew, this threat is becoming harder to avoid. Slaves are cheaper than they used to be, and therefore disposable. In 1850, a slave could be purchased for the modern equivalent of $40,000. These slaves were, therefore, a long-term investment and something to flaunt as a sign of wealth. Nowadays, a slave can be bought for $90. Poverty makes people vulnerable to trafficking. When people or families make less money, due to unemployment, war or immigrating, they become at risk. It is not just traffickers that enslave people. Sometimes governments still force labour upon their citizens. In Uzbekistan, people are forced to harvest cotton for two months out of every year. In Mauritania, the country with the highest percent of slavery among its people at 20 percent, there are still laws that prohibit slaves from attaining the rights of normal civilians. I have not even mentioned the plight in the forced labour and re-education camps of the Uiyghur or the North Koreans or what happened in Cambodia. About half of the world’s slaves exist in India. Fourteen million modern-day slaves live in India and this is after many years ago Indira Ghandi proudly announced the end of indentured labour.  It is also a major manufacturing country of clothes and other goods that find their ways here. I have seen the rag-pickers on the streets of Mumbai. Annually, the slave market brings in $150 billion, which adds up to be more than the combined revenues of the world’s four richest companies. Finally, almost everyone is contributing to slavery. Even though most people are not actually trafficking anyone into modern-day slavery, the fact is that even our electronics have been touched by slavery, due to the gold or other materials used to make them originating from conflict areas. Ninety percent of the shrimp shipped to the United States comes from companies overseas using forced labour. The chocolate bars people consume, the clothing people put on every day, the tomatoes used to make salsa for families, the sugar in the candy given during the holidays and even the soccer balls used in school tournaments are all made or harvested by slave labour. It has trickled down into almost all products used on a daily basis. Becoming a conscious buyer and consumer can make a difference in ways that many are not aware exist.

Anti-Slavery International points out that the definition covers forced and child marriages when someone is married against their will and cannot leave. Most child marriages can be considered as slavery.

The BBC itemises five examples of modern slavery and quotes the 2016 Global Slavery Index, from the Walk Free Foundation in Australia, which defines slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception”. Modern forms of slavery can include debt bondage where a person is forced to work for free to pay off a debt, child slavery, forced marriage, domestic servitude and forced labour where victims are made to work through violence and intimidation. The seafood industry, cannabis factories and nail bars, sexual slavery, forced begging and what goes on behind closed doors are all identified as areas of deep concern.

Reinhold Niebuhr made the prayer “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In the face of the magnitude of trafficking and modern slavery we may well ask what can we do as individuals but all of us need to create in ourselves and build in others a greater awareness of where we might find modern slavery and open people’s eyes that otherwise may not see it under their very noses. We should be sceptical about certain claims and suspicious of others but also be inquisitive. Do we really know how that bargain coat in the sales was made and by whom? When we buy a souvenir how do we really know it has not be crafted by a child by candlelight working a twelve hour day? It can be expensive being against modern slavery – properly sourced goods which do not involve human exploitation can be more expensive but it is a cost worth paying to try to inhibit the terrible plight faced by so many millions of fellow human beings.