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Employment

Reports of forced labour, sex trafficking and domestic servitude at record high in Britain

Increased reports of forced labour in the care sector have sounded alarm bells as the UK’s care crisis worsens

Anti-slavery charity Unseen says it is receiving record numbers of calls to its helpline, with significantly more reports of forced labour, domestic servitude and people being trafficked for sex.

Unseen saw a “huge increase” between 2021 and 2022 in the number of calls to the UK Modern Slavery & Exploitation Helpline reporting potential victims of forced labour in care homes or private residences, and is calling for proposed legislation that criminalises victims to be shelved. 

“To be serious about tackling modern slavery in the UK we need much more awareness of the true size of the problem, better support for victims, and many more resources going into targeting the criminals behind the exploitation”, said Justine Carter, director of Unseen.

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“Instead, the UK is bringing in new migration laws that criminalise some victims of modern slavery, forcing them underground and keeping them vulnerable to traffickers.”

The news comes as Prime Minister RIshi Sunak is expected to tell a Council of Europe meeting in Iceland that policing human trafficking is “not working”.

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“It is very clear that our current international system is not working, and our communities and the world’s most vulnerable people are paying the price,” Sunak said ahead of the trip “We need to do more to co-operate across borders and across jurisdictions to end illegal migration and stop the boats.”

But Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper accused the PM of “hypocrisy” and “trying to make it easier for trafficking gangs in the UK” with the Illegal Immigration Bill.

“If he really believes countries should tackle trafficking he should stop pushing through legislation at home which will make it even harder to prosecute traffickers,” Cooper said in a statement.

The Illegal Migration Bill currently being pushed through parliament seeks to “prevent and deter unlawful migration” but campaigners say it will ban support for victims of human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery.

Under the law, genuine victims of human trafficking who arrive in the UK on small boats won’t be allowed to enter the government’s framework for identifying victims of modern slavery and referring them for support, called the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). This means that a vulnerable person who arrives in the UK to seek asylum but is then trafficked into slavery will themselves be criminalised, rather than the traffickers. 



The helpline reported a 134 per cent rise in the number of cases of labour exploitation in sectors including hospitality, construction, farming and retail they received. 

A call to the helpline in 2021 led to the discovery of nine vulnerable Indian students who were being exploited in care homes in north Wales. They were found sleeping on mattresses in cramped and unsanitary conditions and were described as appearing to be always hungry.

More than 6,500 potential cases of of human trafficking were made to the helpline in 2022, a 116 per cent increase on the year before, but this is just “the tip of the iceberg”, with Unseen estimating that around 100,000 people in the UK are in modern slavery.

“It’s encouraging that more people are contacting us so that we can help them out of a life of misery,” said Carter, however, every call the charity receives is “one too many as slavery should not exist today.”

The helpline reported 479 cases of sexual exploitation, where people are forced into sex work, an increase of 66 per cent. 

Cases of domestic servitude, a form of forced labour where people working as cleaners, nannies, cooks or carers in private homes are unable to leave, rose by 75 per cent. 

In April The Big Issue reported on the case of Joanna – not her real name – who was brought to the UK as a domestic worker with a wealthy family from Dubai. She was forced to care for an elderly man for 12 hours a day, after which she was locked in a hotel room each night. 

“I didn’t think to run because I am honest. I had done nothing wrong, why should I run?” she told The Big Issue, “I have an employer, they should pay me.” But after weeks of forced labour in the UK she’d been paid just £20. 

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She escaped after British police arrived at the hotel and advised her to run away. After a lengthy process, Joanna was identified as a victim of human trafficking by the government referral system.

Kalayaan, a charity supporting migrant domestic workers, is campaigning for a change to visa rules to make it easier for those from overseas to change employers. This would give them a legitimate escape route out of domestic servitude if their employer is being controlling, exploitative or abusive. 

Avril Sharp, who works on policy, campaigns and case work at Kalayaan, said that the rise in numbers of calls to the helpline aligns with the fact that the number of referrals to the NRM is currently the highest since it was established in 2009. 

“The NRM [is] nearing breaking point”, she told The Big Issue. 

“Kalayaan has been contacted by many survivors reporting difficulties in trying to access a referral to the NRM, and who have been advised by some to approach either the police or the helpline for further assistance.”

She argued that more organisations must be trained and allowed to refer potential victims of slavery to the NRM.  

“The government must acknowledge that the increase in numbers of survivors coming forward wanting to access advice, information and support means that there needs to be an increase in the numbers of trained and specialist non-statutory first responder organisations”, she said. 

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