Globe, United Kingdom

21st Century slaves in the UK

Although this form of human exploitation was outlawed in the UK 200 years ago, many people continue in servitude in this country. Mafias force immigrants to work without pay or rights and in sub-human conditions.

Miriam Valero

Thousands of people get up to work all day as slaves at the present time in Britain. Citizens who have been tricked, whose lives are in the hands of criminal gangs. People who are threatened, assaulted on a daily basis and forced to work extremely long days without rest or payment.

Far from just being a distant memory in human history, slavery is still happening every day in this country and elsewhere in the world.

The victims of exploitation spend every day under the control of a supervisor who uses fear, intimidation and violence as means to deprive them of all their rights and their freedom.

Although the official figures on the numbers of people affected are unreliable – which the British Home Office itself has recognized – the 2007 report Modern Slavery in the United Kingdom produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), claims that there is evidence that thousands of people are working as slaves in the UK.

More precisely, it has been established that at least 5,000 children are being used as sex slaves in this country.

This shocking figure doesn’t even include the total number of victims, because to them must be added the adults who are sexually exploited, as well as all those who are forced to work without pay, figures for which which are still not known.

Human trafficking – the deception and capture of people and their forcible transportation, with the aim of controlling and exploiting them – is one of the principal forms of slavery today in the UK. A large number of the victims of trafficking end up as sex slaves.

Besides this form of exploitation a large number of people are forced to work in many different sectors, such as domestic work, agriculture, construction, food preparation and packaging, restaurants, leisure, cleaning, clothes manufacturing, or carework, among others.

In the case of people who have been victims of trafficking, they are deceived into paying “debts” incurred for their journey – in many cases, payments that never end. Or their identity documents are stolen so that when their visas expire they are left completely at the mercy of the traffickers.

When ‘Audra’ (not her real name) arrived from Lithuania her employers asked her to give up her passport for registration. They told her that they had to send it to the Home Office, but she never saw this document again. And without it she was deprived of her rights through not being able to prove her identity.

She began working 16 hours a day, under the threat that if she refused she would lose her job and her accommodation.

Later she was forced to work in shifts and sleep in a car, and was then taken to live with two men. She didn’t speak English, and didn’t know her rights or how to defend herself.

Audra was a victim of human trafficking, the category of people most at risk of being enslaved in this country. Next to them immigrants are the people most vulnerable to exploitation.

British Slaves

However, in recent years the number of cases of British citizens living in poverty, who are also exploited by criminal gangs has increased. According to official sources and NGOs working with marginalized people, cases of homeless people who are taken by criminal gangs are becoming more common.

In 2011, British people were among the ten most exploited nationalities in this country.

One of the most recent cases in the news happened last year in Bedfordshire, where 24 men were found doing forced labour on a caravan site. Among them were 15 British people.

Some of them had been working as slaves for 15 years. Their conditions of work included being forced to shave their heads, eat as little food as possible and live in sheds contaminated with excrement.

The economic crisis has also contributed to the number of British people working as slaves.

The Abusers

If it’s true that organized crime gangs exploit thousands of people on a daily basis in this underworld – the JRF report claims that there may be as many as 10,000 gang bosses – British companies are not free of responsibility either.

The work done by many slaves indirectly benefits British firms who subcontract to companies with complicated chains of labour management, using slave labour as part of their workforce. Many companies are unaware of this, but for others it is easy to deny knowledge of practices that are not happening in their own premises.

Although at present new measures are still necessary to put an end to this serious situation of exploited people, in 2010 parliament moved to create legislation specifically criminalizing those who maintain others in conditions of servitude or slavery and working against their will.

In the view of British NGOs, slavery and trafficking have been tackled by the government more as an immigration problem than one involving human rights. In response they are demanding that those affected should be treated primarily as victims of crime, not as immigrants.

(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email:

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