The Hidden Face of Forced Labour in Britain

Mei Ling McNamara - 1st February 2013

As previous posts on the OxHRH Blog have highlighted, trafficking for forced labour remains a hot-button issue in the UK.  A new report by the Office of International Migration (IOM), released in January 2013, looked at trends in trafficking from over 150 missions since 2010. The report revealed that labour exploitation is now surpassing sexual slavery as the main cause of human trafficking across the globe.   It has also led to an increase in the number of male victims of trafficking.  While  female victims still remain the largest exploited group, primarily for the sex trade, the report found that the number of males who received IOM assistance rose by 27% from 2010 to 2011, with greater focus on trafficking for industries including construction, fishing and mining.

Last year, the UK saw the number of trafficking victims being referred rise substantially from 700 to nearly 1,000, where labour exploitation now makes up a quarter of all documented cases. In some instances, the illegal nature of the job remains another tether that keeps trafficked victims criminalised and more fearful of seeking help from the authorities. Lacking documentation and crossing borders illegally only stack the case against trafficked victims who are now found to be breaking the law. Cannabis factories, illegal goods selling and benefit fraud are just some of the growing industries that place victims firmly in the crossfire between protection and prosecution.

For years, the UK has had to contend with the shadowy spectre of sex trafficking, and has created some robust legislation to counter it.  Recently the UK Human Trafficking Centre, ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) and Crimestoppers launched a public service campaign to make citizens more aware of forced labour in this video, and Wales has assigned the UK’s first-ever anti-human trafficking coordinator to tackle the growing incidence through its ports, hidden residences and industrial estates.  Yet contradictions and inconsistences remain rife in the UK government’s message to eradicate the scourge of trafficking and modern-day slavery in Britain. In one of the most recent examples of this, the Transparency in UK Supply Chains Bill (Eradication of Slavery) 2012-2013 – which would have made companies trading in Britain more accountable in the prevention of forced labour, human trafficking and the worst forms of child labour in their supply chains – was talked out in its second reading in Parliament on 19 October, again on 18 January, and is scheduled again for another reading on 1st March.

This Bill came at a time when one of the most shocking examples of forced labour was occurring at a gangmaster supplier working for Noble Foods, a UK company with contracts for eggs to companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer’s, and where the mistreatment of a large number of Lithuanians internally trafficked around the country was roundly condemned. Though there are mixed opinions on the current Supply Chains Bill, there is no denying that greater political will is needed if large UK businesses are going to rout out exploitation in the country’s labour market.

As the recession cuts deeper into Britain and work is becoming scarcer, the desperation and vulnerability of workers has become more acute. This year, Britain will have finally opted into the recent EU Directive on human trafficking, and all eyes will be on how the government sets out to define what they claim is a growing immigration problem, and what they concede is an urgent human rights issue.

Mei-Ling McNamara is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, working in both print and broadcast media. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Trans-Disciplinary Documentary Film at the University of Edinburgh where her work is focussed on forced labour on the black market in Britain. Her documentary Children of the Cannabis Trade, broadcast on Al-Jazeera English, won the 2011 Human Trafficking Foundation Media Award for Best TV Documentary, presented at the House of Lords. She is currently based in Edinburgh.


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