What's the issue

Human Trafficking as Modern Day Slavery

The exploitation of human beings for profit takes many forms, including sexual exploitation, forced labour, child trafficking and domestic servitude. The efforts of successive governments to tackle the causes and effects of slavery have met with limited success, not least because of the fluidity of trafficking networks, which are quick to adapt to changing circumstances. Limited public understanding of the issue compounds the problem: people are slow to recognise instances of trafficking in their midst and reluctant to report these to the police.

Slavery today is a global business and a source of huge profits for traffickers and crime syndicates. The UK began to wake up to the horrors of modern slavery in February 2004 when 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecombe Bay. Since then, campaigners have exposed a pernicious human trafficking problem across the UK. Support agencies, police and the wider community have identified thousands of victims of trafficking including men, women and children. Victims are trafficked from every corner of the world - in the last year alone, victims from 54 different countries have been identified - and are found in ordinary cities and towns across the UK. Traffickers also target the vulnerable within the UK, moving them from place to place and making money out of their exploitation. The UK has a duty to protect these victims, provide them with a safe haven, prosecute those who traffic them and seize traffickers’ assets.

The International Labour Organization (ILO, 2012) estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally, of which 1.5 million are to be found in the developed economies and European Union only. This estimate includes victims of human trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation and, although it is not known how many of these victims were trafficked, the data implies that there could be millions of trafficked people across the world. They can be found in, among other places, the world’s restaurants, fisheries, brothels, farms and homes. Indeed, there are more people in slavery today than in the entire 350 year history of the transatlantic slave trade.

Human trafficking is nothing less than serious, international, organised crime.  It is now thought to be the second most lucrative organised criminal activity worldwide generating an estimated $32 billion per annum (ILO, 2008).

Human Trafficking can take different forms:

  • Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation:
    The scale of trafficking for sexual exploitation remains largely unknown worldwide since its very nature demands secrecy and reliable statistics are therefore not forthcoming. In the UK, there are some clues as to its scale. For example, in a recent ACPO report, 2,212 brothels were identified in London alone, and the police estimate that up to 50% of those working in the brothels may have been trafficked. Traffickers take virtually all the earnings from their ‘slave’ and move them around the country so they are not associated with any particular area.
  • Trafficking for Domestic Servitude
    Domestic workers have been particularly vulnerable to exploitation from employers. They work alone and are reliant on their employer for their work, accommodation and immigration status.  If the employer does not respect their rights, migrant domestic workers have little bargaining power and can find themselves trapped in this invisible form of slavery. Cases of domestic servitude in the UK include both adults and children, normally migrants.
  • Trafficking for Forced Labour
    Many people trafficked into the UK - particularly boys and men – are forced to carry out backbreaking work on farms or in factories for little or no pay. Their passports are confiscated by their traffickers and they are made to live in terrible conditions. This is not a phenomenon just affecting foreigners: in early 2012, several British men were rescued from a site in Bedfordshire where they had been living in squalid conditions, forced to work day and night without pay.
  • Child Trafficking
    Children are trafficked for all types of exploitation including sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, forced marriage, illegal adoption and participation in criminal activities including pick-pocketing, shoplifting, ATM theft and cannabis cultivation. When trafficked children are abandoned, they are usually without money, identification and anywhere to go. They are especially vulnerable to physical abuse and rape.

Why is human trafficking a particularly difficult crime to discover and eliminate?

  • It takes many forms, each having particular characteristics of its own: there is no ‘standard model’ (beyond the systematic abuse of human freedom and dignity).
  • Perpetrators are often linked across a loose association of international networks: as soon as one loophole is closed, another is detected and exploited.
  • Many of the voluntary sector organisations working against trafficking (and who witness the issues firsthand) have a specialist focus – on children, domestic slaves, or sex workers. As a consequence, they are all too often seen by parliamentarians and policy-makers as ‘single-issue’ campaigners, and indeed as overly-politicised. ‘Big picture’ messages are all too often lost in a cacophony of competing voices.
  • Low levels of public understanding and awareness mean the police cannot rely on trafficking being reported. Many people confuse trafficking with ‘migrant working’ or ‘illegal immigration’ and have little sympathy for victims.
  • Victims are generally living in fear, often do not speak English, do not fully understand what is going on and comply with their abusers in hiding the reality - often because of threats of violence or fear of recrimination against their families back home.