No sirens, no drama: UK goes softly, softly to net human traffickers

Elvis impersonators board the Blue Suede Express at Central Station in Sydney January 10, 2019. — AAP Image/Mick Tsikas/ Reuters pic
Elvis impersonators board the Blue Suede Express at Central Station in Sydney January 10, 2019. — AAP Image/Mick Tsikas/ Reuters pic

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BIRMINGHAM, May 24 — The officers arrived quietly at the house in central England — no need for a battering ram, a knock on the door sufficed.

Months of investigating, evidence from three Romanian modern slaves and a tip-off from a bank led anti-slavery officials to a residential street in Birmingham one sunny morning this week.

Several officers entered the home quickly yet calmly, moving children and possible victims out of harm’s way before arresting two men and a woman suspected of exploiting Romanian factory workers by saddling them with debts and seizing their wages.

Searching for evidence, the officials found a notepad filled with names, work shifts, earnings, living costs and debts owed — “useful material” suggesting labour abuse as the anti-slavery agency pursues a prosecution under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

“We engage with many potential victims who come here to seek a better life ... but most don’t understand that they are being exploited, or victims of criminality,” said Andy Davies, senior officer with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).

“The reality is they are exploited financially, and don’t understand (their situation),” he said. “Bringing people to Britain, putting them to work, making money on the back of that labour — this is very much the definition of modern slavery.”

About 7,000 suspected slavery victims were identified last year, up a third on 2017, yet activists say the surge raises concerns about the government’s ability to support survivors.

Labour exploitation — from men working in car washes to children forced to carry drugs — remained the most common form of slavery, while most potential victims were from Britain, Albania and Vietnam, the same as in 2017, the statistics showed.

Not just justice 

British law enforcement has hugely ramped up the number of probes into slavery in recent years — from sexual exploitation and forced labour at factories and farms to children being used as drug mules — as thousands of victims are uncovered each year.

Police investigations have soared seven-fold to about 1,370 in two-and-a-half years, while the GLAA has launched more than 275 operations into labour abuse since it was given police-style powers in 2017 and a widened remit to probe workplace offences.

The agency’s greater clout has allowed police forces to focus on the most egregious forms of modern slavery as the GLAA tackles crimes further down the spectrum of exploitation, said Shaun Sawyer, the nation’s top police officer combating slavery.

“The GLAA protects legitimate businesses and migrant workers in a way police just don’t have the skill set or background to do,” said the National Police Chiefs’ Council anti-slavery lead.

Yet Britain’s world-first anti-slavery law is under review amid criticism it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour or help victims, and lawmakers said this week that there had been too few convictions to-date.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) convicted about 185 people for modern slavery offences in the 2017-2018 period — down from 192 two years earlier — and only 7 per cent of police investigations into the crime lead to charges, the CPS says.

While the GLAA said there is an appetite to get more cases to court, its objectives stretch beyond just seeking justice.

“With this sort of crime, there are broader outcomes to look at,” Davies told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after the raid.

“If we disrupt criminality... and recover victims and put them in a better environment, that’s an achievement in itself,” said Davies, whose agency has identified at least 3,700 workers suffering from some form of labour exploitation since May 2017.

Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation — a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.

‘How would I know?’ 

Moments after the suspects in Birmingham were bundled into a police van and taken for questioning, GLAA officers turned their attention to two men they feared could be victims of slavery.

On an initial visit to the property last month, officials rescued three Romanian men who said bank accounts had been opened on their behalf and the money they earned at a packing factory taken without their permission.

Many migrants who are trafficked to Britain are charged large sums in return for providing them with a job and housing, and end up trapped in debt bondage, according to the GLAA.

Yet on this occasion, the men living in the house — both new arrivals to the country — said they were not victims of abuse and described the suspected ringleaders as relatives or friends.

One of them — in his forties and looking tired and unkempt — said he did not know the name or address of his workplace, but denied having any idea about criminality occurring in the house.

“How would I know it happens?” he asked via an interpreter, sitting in a living room adorned with artwork of dogs and tigers, and a small Christian shrine above the fireplace.

Several GLAA officers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that many foreign slaves do not see themselves as victims as they are so often desperate to realise a better life in Britain.

The agency does follow-up visits and monitors suspected victims in case they choose to speak out and seek help one day.

“We have a duty to investigate the criminal offences reported to us, but... also to educate people about the fact that they could be potential victims,” Davies of the GLAA said.

“It is morally wrong the way they are treated... this kind of behaviour is not accepted in Britain.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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