At the beginning of July, the UK's National Crime Agency was asked to investigate modern slavery allegations in Leicester's clothing factories. "As many as 10,000 people could be working in slave-like conditions in textile factories" in Leicester, a report by Sky News disclosed. (Image source: Philafrenzy/Wikimedia Commons)
A new British report, "It Still Happens Here: Fighting UK Slavery in the 2020s", by The Modern Slavery Policy Unit, a joint initiative led by the anti-slavery charity Justice and Care and The Centre for Social Justice, has estimated that "there could be at least 100,000 victims [of modern slavery] in the UK, with the actual number likely to be even greater".
According to the report:
"Many thousands of children, women and men of all nationalities and backgrounds -- including a growing number of British citizens -- continue to be trafficked and exploited for profit by ruthless criminal networks. They are tricked, taken and coerced into sexual slavery, crime, hard labour and domestic servitude. Forced addictions are increasingly used as methods of control".
According to the report, despite the scale of the crimes, prosecutions have barely increased:
"Human traffickers and Organised Crime Groups are running riot in too many communities. Very few face prosecution relative to the number of victims found and even fewer are convicted. As the number of victims discovered has skyrocketed in the last five years, convictions have barely increased. In the year ending March 2019 there were 322 completed prosecutions for modern slavery-related crimes and 219 convictions served. During the same period, 7,525 adults and children were identified as potential victims of modern slavery".
The report shows that modern slavery has many brutal forms and that it is an issue that remains mostly hidden from public view. Examples mentioned in the report include homeless British men enslaved by travellers -- a term for nomadic communities in Britain -- who were subjected to forced labor, financial exploitation and horrific physical abuse; Romanian girls trafficked for sexual exploitation between the UK and Romania by their Romanian handlers; and children groomed and exploited, most often by gangs, as drug couriers.
At the beginning of July, the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) was asked to investigate modern slavery allegations in Leicester's clothing factories after an alarm was raised that they were a key source of the spike in coronavirus infections in the region. An undercover investigation by The Sunday Times found that workers in a factory, which allegedly produced budget clothing destined for the fashion giant Boohoo (owned by British billionaire Mahmud Kamani) were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour ($4), less than half the minimum wage, and were working under inhuman conditions. Home Secretary Priti Patel described the findings as "appalling".
"As many as 10,000 people could be working in slave-like conditions in textile factories" in Leicester, a report by Sky News disclosed.
"There are doubtless workplaces in the city that are unsuitable," deputy mayor Adam Clarke told Sky News.
"We've been aware of this for a very long time and have been working with enforcement agencies to try to ensure that there is effective regulation enforcement... This is a systemic issue that is borne out of poor regulation, poor legislation and exploitation at every level. You have to ask yourself who actually has the power to change this? And that buck stops with government".
The report also warned of a "serious risk" that the coronavirus would "lead to a rise in modern slavery and human trafficking. The main drivers of modern slavery – poverty, lack of opportunity and other vulnerabilities – will intensify, resulting in an increased risk of exploitation and abuse."
"There could be slaves working in your local florist, restaurant or nail bar," Dame Sara Thornton, who was appointed as Britain's anti-slavery commissioner in June 2019, told The Telegraph in November. "We're only looking at the tip of the iceberg. The trajectory is definitely on the way up and accelerating."
"It's everywhere, so hidden and yet in your face – [they are] working in restaurants, making the clothes you're wearing, picking the vegetables you've bought. We've had young people selling pirated DVDs and flowers outside tube stations," said Lucy Leon, founder of the Rise Project, a specialist service from The Children's Society's for boys and young men who have been trafficked to the UK.
None of the above has been on the agenda of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in the UK, which has been much more concerned with bringing down statues of dead slave traders and colonialists, such as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, or students forcing Oxford University to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes. The protesters of historical slavery could well be wearing clothes produced by the marginalized, victimized modern slaves who have no access to the justice and equality for which the protesters claim to fight.
In a statement, the Local Government Association deputy leaders from the Labour Party announced that the approximately 130 Labour-controlled councils in England and Wales will "listen to and work with their local communities to review the appropriateness of local monuments and statues on public land and council property". London's Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced a commission to examine the diversity of London's monuments. "I suspect the committee may take down slavers' statues," Khan told Sky News.
British companies have pledged "to pay large sums to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities after their roles in the slave trade were highlighted in a major academic database," according to The Telegraph. "Greene King, one of the UK's largest pub chains, and Lloyd's of London, one of the world's biggest insurance firms, both said they would make payments".
Nick Mackenzie, Greene King's chief executive, told The Telegraph:
"It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s. We don't have all the answers, so that is why we are taking time to listen and learn from all the voices, including our team members and charity partners, as we strengthen our diversity and inclusion work."
Greene King would also make a "substantial investment to benefit the BAME community and support our race diversity in the business as we increase our focus on targeted work in this area."
"We are sorry for the role played by the Lloyd's market in the 18th and 19th century slave trade," a Lloyd's spokesman said.
"This was an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred during this period. We will provide financial support to charities and organisations promoting opportunity and inclusion for black and minority ethnic groups."
It is telling that both public and private resources, as well as endless media coverage, are being dedicated to the issue of "racist statues" and historical slavery, while the plight of living, suffering modern slaves -- an issue that needs tremendous effort to be tackled to even some degree -- barely interests anyone.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.