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Modern Day Slavery Rife In The UK

In 2015 the Modern Slavery Act was brought in and many hoped that this would bring about a positive change. It became mandatory to report the presence of modern slavery in the supply chains of large companies. Sadly, nearly half a decade later, this has not been the case.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has found that the transparency statements delivered by businesses are vague and purposefully obscured by omitting out vital details. Earlier this year, a modern slavery operation consisting of around 400 trafficked workers from Poland, found that many of their victims were working for second-tier suppliers to household names such as Tesco, Asda, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury's, and Waitrose. AlthoughTesco and Sainsbury's were found to still be heavily engaged with modern slavery in their supply chains, they still rank at the top of Oxfam's Behind the Barcode campaign. This campaign ranks the 16 most popular European supermarkets concerning their behaviour towards human rights. 

"Slavery is the greatest of humanity's evils", Katherine Steiner-Dicks said, "yet it has permeated our daily lives, right down to the chopped spring onions in our salads and the tinned tomatoes in our children's pasta sauces." This is certainly true, and even more concerning is that it is rising. In 2018, 2,255 modern slavery related offences were recorded in England and Wales – up by 159% from 2017. The British state has created an environment where the despicable practise can thrive. 

Estimates by the UK government suggest that there are up to 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the country - working in sectors as varied as agriculture, hospitality, and construction. However, the Global Slavery Index claims that the government is underselling the issue by ten times with their reports estimating that the number suffering from modern slavery in the UK is more likely around 136,000. 

The vast majority ensnared by modern slavery are immigrants – including European nationals- and asylum seekers. It has also been found that ‘gangmasters' even recruit their slave workforce from homeless shelters. However, the loss of frictionless mobility and EU labour, coupled with post-Brexit temporary visa schemes to replace freedom of movement, we could see the situation worsen dramatically. 

Leaving the European Union puts EU victims of slavery in an even more precarious position as new EU entrants will have fewer options and legal protections when inside the UK. Rather than supported as a survivor, EU victims fleeing human trafficking will be treated the same as all non-UK victims in which they are treated like criminals and are left to claim asylum or seek humanitarian aid within the confines of harrowing detention centres. As a result, EU workers are ideal targets for gangs after Brexit. When the new skills-based immigration plan comes into effect in 2021, the tightened immigration rules will dilute access to legal recruitment channels which, in turn, will result in even larger pools of illegal workers to fill the deficit. 

To make matters worse, the Home Office hopes to fill the void of labour with even more exploitative systems. In particular, the 12 Month Temporary Visa will put migrants in danger as they would be linked to just one specific employer with no option to switch or even extend their stay. Anti-slavery charities such as Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) argue that this simultaneously grants unscrupulous bosses more margin to exploit workers meanwhile workers will have even less opportunity to raise a complaint. 

It is obvious that the government is failing to protect workers' rights and the damage that this is doing is enhanced by decades of attacks on trade unions. Not only will the immigration system aggravate the situation, trade unions still have very limited access to many precarious workplaces and are often forcibly removed from businesses altogether. This erodes the protection that victims of modern slavery may have found in the absence of adequate governmental protection. With an expansion in trade union rights, a re-assessment of the immigration rules and the political will from a government that would take companies - big and small - to task when they are found to have modern-day slavery in their supply chains, we could put an end to this, and we must. 

By Jack Yates, Content Writer, Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration lawyers based in Manchester.

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