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Thursday, 13 May 2021
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Talkback UK: In a Neighbourhood Near You?

Written by Tony Flower

THERE is a perception that modern-day slavery is predominantly perpetrated by international traffickers, where unfortunate victims are lured by the promise of a better life in the West. In 2019, the awful story broke of 39 Vietnamese migrants found suffocated in an airtight container in Essex. They’d come to this country with the promise of work in nail bars, restaurants, and bricklaying.

But does this abhorrent trade in human misery thrive closer to home too? A recent story in Radio 4’s mainstay of British culture, the Archers, highlights the issue. In the idyllic fictional village of Ambridge, three British born men named Blake, Jordan and Kenzie are enslaved by builders and concealed on the outskirts of the village.

Their slave masters are ostensibly respectable members of the community, well-known and reputable among their fellow citizens. They justify their actions by deceiving themselves that they are doing these men a favour by taking them off the streets. As the story unfolds, it emerges that the victims have learning disabilities and mental health issues.

Far-fetched? After all, British soap operas are renowned for their constant pursuit of sensational stories to titillate their viewers or listeners. But official statistics reveal that this is a tale based very much on reality. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are up to 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK; in 2019, over 10,000 were rescued and referred to the home office.

The Archer’s story was inspired when its editor Jeremy Howe read about the unscrupulous Rooney gang, a family based in Lincolnshire convicted of trafficking 18 men into hard labour for their driveway resurfacing company. These men were subjected to beatings and mental cruelty and had become institutionalised into long-term slavery. Howe’s subsequent meeting with one of the victims revealed a troubled young man with a mild learning disability who had been abused by his alcoholic mother. Under the Rooneys’ regime, he had lived in a decrepit caravan and was only allowed to eat when he worked.

The world over, traffickers and gang-masters prey on the weak and vulnerable; those living on the street or in homeless shelters; those without the capacity to take care of their own physical and emotional wellbeing; those who are isolated with no one to turn to; those without the communication skills to express their suffering, or the self-esteem to question what is happening to them. They are groomed with guarantees of a roof over their heads, food, and cash-in-hand work. Once hooked, they can become emotionally dependent, with a misguided loyalty to their abusers or fear of repercussions if they run away.

Although the authorities keep figures on age, gender, country of origin etc., there are no statistics on how many of the victims suffer from hidden disabilities, which leave them even more vulnerable. They have complex needs, and it can be difficult to gain the appropriate support for trauma recovery if they are found and freed.

So, how can we all help to eradicate this shameful business? We can recognise that it isn’t exclusive to big cities – it can be found anywhere there is a demand for cheap labour. The Modern-Day Slavery Act of 2015 states that only businesses with a turnover of £36million and above are obliged to produce a modern slavery statement. Public awareness is key – no one is suggesting that your local tradesperson indulges in such exploitation – the vast majority are honest, hard-working and above board, but there are tell-tale signs to look out for.

  • Groups of people living in unusual locations, being picked up and dropped off at odd hours
  • Workers who appear to be malnourished and show signs of neglect
  • Workers who have untreated injuries
  • Workers that don’t communicate or who aren’t permitted to speak for themselves

Unseen UK (https://www.unseenuk.org/) is an organisation that helps people to spot the signs, remove victims from exploitative situations, and provide support and aftercare.

You can contact the Modern Slavery helpline on: 08000 121 700 (https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/) if you suspect someone has fallen victim to modern slavery, or if you suspect someone of trafficking, or you can call the police on 101 or 999 in an emergency situation.

Modern-day slavery is a crime that can be easily hidden, but one that could be happening under our noses. Perhaps, with a little vigilance and questioning, any one of us could help to save someone from such evil exploitation. 

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