Modern slavery is out of sight and it’s slipping out of mind

2 August 2018

From the sex trade to car washes, the number of reported cases of modern slavery in Britain is rising. But despite legislation in 2015 that framed the UK as a leader in the fight against slavery, action has plateaued. 

Modern slavery is a lucrative crime worldwide. An estimated 40 million people globally are enslaved, raising annual illegal profits of $150 billion. Countries and charities are boosting efforts to catch traffickers and provide support to survivors. The issue needs a truly collaborative effort - is this happening?

Government and The Modern Slavery Act 2015 

The 2018 Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free Foundation found that Britain is home to about 136,000 modern slaves trapped in forced labour, sex exploitation and forced marriages. This figure is however disputed by activists and academics, as the government estimates only 13,000 and the police say it is more likely to be tens of thousands. This data discrepancy further highlights the difficulty of tacking a hidden crime.

According to Kevin Hyland, Britain’s first anti-slavery commissioner, police in England and Wales recorded 2,255 modern slavery crimes in 2016/17, up from 870 cases in 2015/16. The reporting mechanism seems to be working, but conviction rates in slavery cases fell to 61% from nearly 70% over that period. 

Do law enforcers know how to implement new laws? 

Businesses and their supply chains 

This month John Lewis announced it will provide survivors of modern slavery paid work placements that can lead to permanent jobs - one of a growing number of businesses to do so.   

The retailer - which also owns Waitrose – is taking positive steps to eradicate slavery from supply chains too. Last year they pulled luxury granite worktops from sale after rights groups found many of the labourers mining the rock in southern Indian quarries were victims of modern slavery. 

The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s investigation into illegal mica mining in India led to car giant VW reassessing where it sourced paint for its vehicles and local councils investigating the mines mentioned in the news investigation. Companies are willing to play a part, but is it enough? 

Under the UK Modern Slavery Act, firms with a turnover of at least £36 million must issue a Modern Slavery Statement outlining steps they have taken to identify the risk of forced labour within their operations. Just over half of the about 19,000 companies in Britain required to comply with the law have issued statements to date, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain, a public database.

Charities and activists 

In India, the country with the highest number of modern slaves, trafficking survivors are urging lawmakers to support proposed legislation to fight the crime, after an opposition leader said it could be used to target consenting adults working in the sex industry. 

The Thomson Reuters Foundation has led the media’s efforts to cover the issue, with a dedicated news desk reporting on the issue worldwide, while the Foundation’s annual event, Trust Conference, brings together all sectors to share best practices amongst businesses that are eradicating forced labour from their supply chains, as well as lessons from survivors of slavery. 

Bond is an official media partner with leading human rights forum Trust Conference, organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation – held in the heart of London on 14 - 15 November 2018. The two-day event convenes global corporations, lawyers, government representatives, and pioneers committed to finding real solutions to fight slavery, empower women, and advance human rights worldwide.

Bond members can receive up to 30% off NGO tickets. Please contact Tahsin.Ahmed for further information Tahsin.Ahmed@thomsonreuters.com 

About the author

Melissa Paramasivan
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Mel Paramasivan is a communications manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She has worked in communications for non-profit, private and public organisations in Europe and Africa.