By Sekki Tabasuares
The United Kingdom is no stranger to the problem of human exploitation. In fact, trafficking has had a firm foothold here, a market-driven crime industry that has thrived with impunity on greed, profit and poverty. The tragic deaths in 2004 of 23 Chinese cockle pickers over 12 years ago started an investigation that revealed how thousands of Chinese workers were illegally brought to the UK to work under harsh conditions.
The man behind the operation was sentenced to 14 years on 21 counts of manslaughter. Under UK law he served less than half of his sentence before being deported to China in 2012. Liverpool Bay Fishing Company, which regularly purchased the cockles from the human traffickers, was not held accountable for the system of abuse.
Today, exploitation still occurs in the nation’s supply chain industry, with forced labour as the most reported type of modern slavery as of 2016, overtaking sexual exploitation which was the most common form reported in 2015. In Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, a bed firm called Kozee Sleep was shut down for employing Hungarians working 80-hour weeks and living in inhuman conditions. This prompted the conviction earlier this year of the factory owner for conspiracy to traffic people into the UK. The firm’s business with high street retailers, repeatedly passing their ethical audits, has also raised public concern.
In 2009, the UK Human Trafficking Centre formed the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to measure how many potential trafficking victims enter the UK every year. In its summary report for 2015, the NRM highlighted that this number had risen 40% from 2014, with 3,266 referrals compared to the previous year which saw 2,340 potential victims.
One of the biggest hurdles in stopping crimes of this nature has been the actual identification of, as well as lack of cooperation from, the victims themselves. While the figures show that modern day slaves also include UK nationals, a sizable number of the exploited are from other countries such as Albania, Nigeria and Vietnam. While specialist police units have been mobilised throughout the country, the psychological hold the perpetrators have over their victims often guarantees their silence and complacency. This control takes the form of confiscated passports or threat of harm to the victims’ families in their homeland, making the criminal prosecution of traffickers difficult.
Following the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, the country’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC) Kevin Hyland was appointed to develop a strategic plan to address modern slavery. In order to do this, his two-year strategy utilises what he calls the “4P” paradigm priority: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships. The new laws that the IASC intends to implement include transparency in businesses with a turnover of £36 million, who are required to disclose the measures they take to get rid of slavery in their supply chains.