Modern slavery continues to make headlines in Sussex as struggles of exploitation, trafficking, and enslavement unfold across the region. Recently, cases around Eastbourne, Crawley, Chichester, Uckfield and Hastings have involved human trafficking for drugs transportation, benefit fraud, negligence of the vulnerable, and debt bondage to enslave local and foreign nationals.
The UK has seen the highest number of modern slavery victims since records began in 2009, according to antislavery.org, a UK-based charity which specialises in the elimination of modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Helpline experienced a 68% increase in calls in the year before December 2018. Referrals of cases from the police to the Crown Protection Service increased by 20% in the year before December 2020. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) found in 2019 that men of Romanian, Bulgarian and Lithuanian nationality were at heightened risk of being victim to modern slavery abuses.
A recent Sussex Police investigation into two men suspected of exploiting Bulgarian workers on a Bognor Regis farm emphasises these statistics. Agriculture faces high volumes of slavery offences due to the seasonal nature of jobs in the sector, which frequently attracts European workers. Within agriculture, the farming of fruit, vegetables, and flowers – horticulture – is the most labour intensive and therefore at even greater risk of exploitative practices. While it’s not feasible to determine numbers of casual versus gang workers within agriculture, the Annual Population Survey indicates that there was a minimum total of 346,000 people working in British agriculture for the year ending June 2016. The National Farmers Union (NFU) Seasonal Supply of Labour survey estimates that 99% of seasonal labour is provided by EU workers.
To hear Ardea CEO Colleen Theron and Dr Minh Dang discuss the support we can give to survivors of modern slavery, listen here.
With 8.8 million hectares of land currently being used for farming, and a succession of crises resulting in a reduction of legal migration into the UK (think Brexit, Covid, and the coming points-based immigration system), the UK has a surplus of workable land and a shortage of legal routes for workers. Despite the agricultural sector experiencing a significant labour shortage in the last four years, the Government failed recognise this officially and to add the sector to the Shortage Occupation List.
Gary Craig, Professor of Social Justice and Visiting Professor at Newcastle University, spoke to openDemocracy.com about the topic. He said, “The pressures on employers to pay low wages, to house people in appalling conditions, to demand very long work shifts, these are all going to grow.” Craig also highlighted how the Immigration Act 2016 left the GLAA with more ground to cover than ever without a proportionate increase in resources.
Anti-slavery.org and Amnesty International have both criticised the British response to modern slavery, highlighting how threats of criminalisation under immigration law and public funding cuts punish victims rather than offer them help. The UK is believed to lack the resources to sufficiently investigate and support modern slavery cases.
The first national act to bring all issues of modern slavery under one statute was the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, brought in by Theresa May’s government. Unfortunately, more recent legislation has been thought by various charities working in the field to undermine these efforts. Amnesty International has termed the Government Bill 262, which will aim to clamp down on “illegal” immigration, as the “antithesis” to the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The charity explains how the bill poses a threat to all those who are trafficked into the UK and to the system which currently aims to protect them, and how it could even enable exploitation and benefit those who already profit from these exploits.
Often, when we in the Western world talk about human rights abuses, we place the issues exclusively among far-away, sometimes arbitrary lands. Recent talk in the media of human rights abuses in Qatar demonstrated this cultural habit and overshadowed some of our own domestic struggles. While it is true that there are many countries around the world that do not benefit from the high legal standards that we do, the UK is no utopia when it comes to human rights. With the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons coming up next month, there is no better time to start reflecting on how your business can do its part to regulate against modern slavery. Last year, we hosted a free webinar with a panel of industry experts to mark the occasion. You can watch it here.
Victims can be found in fields, fishing boats, construction sites, nail salons, corner shops, or even a neighbour’s home. Types of exploitation vary from criminal exploitation such as theft or benefit fraud, to drugs smuggling, sex work or organ harvesting. Despite government disputes over the matter and other trivialities, slavery is an internationally recognised crime and a violation of one’s human rights, as declared in the Universal Declaration and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is high time we redouble our efforts to address this issue, which not only is an internationally pressing matter but sitting right on our doorstep.
The GLAA provides advice on how to report modern slavery if you suspect something is out of place.
I am currently an intern at Ardea, conducting research on how businesses in the Sussex region perceive and approach issues of modern slavery. This research aims to find out more about how businesses and NGOs could come together in the region to provide mutual aid. If you are a part of a Sussex-based business and would like to contribute to our research, please find the survey below.
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