Modern slavery cases highlight challenge of protecting victims

together we can
Image courtesy of Epping Forest District Council.

Two recent cases of human trafficking—one in Cardiff and one in Appin in the West of Scotland—are examples of how modern slavery can exist unnoticed in our midst, says Professor Hazel Watson, Convener of the Scottish Churches Anti-Human Trafficking Group."The Cardiff case was unusual because it involved a UK citizen exploiting another UK citizen, but it is not unique," Dr Watson says.

"The tragic thing is cases have been reported in each of the countries in the UK. Official reports show that 3,266 cases were detected in the UK last year, but research conducted for the Home Office estimated that in 2013 there were between 10,000 to 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK."

The Cardiff case

Dr Watson, who sits on the Scottish Government's Strategic Oversight Group on Human Trafficking, spoke on the Voice of Islam radio breakfast show this week to share her expertise on the issue.

In Cardiff, Wales, three family members were convicted of enslaving a vulnerable Aberdeen man who was terrorised, kept in "appalling conditions," and forced to labour long hours in the family's tarmacking business for 21 years. When he escaped he was "hunted down" and beaten. Read the BBCs story about the case.

"People think of this as something that happens far from our shores, but here is a UK Citizen being exploited by other UK citizens," Dr Watson says.

Dr Hazel Watson Dr Hazel Watson

"People who find themselves in this situation are usually very vulnerable individuals--they may have been impoverished.

"We know of one gentleman who lived with his mother until he was in his 50s. He was dependent on her and when she became ill and died, he was not able to continue with his job and was waiting at a homeless shelter when he was approached by two men who offered him accommodation, a good job, some food and some alcohol. So he went with them willingly and then found himself in a very similar situation to the gentleman in Cardiff."

The causes

The International Labour Organization estimates almost 21 million people are enslaved around the world.

Dr Watson said the root causes of modern slavery include: massive inequality between the world's rich and poor nations, poverty, caste systems and discrimination against women, disabled people and others.

Criminals and criminal organisations take advantage of these conditions to exploit vulnerable people for gain, she said.

"The trade in human beings is one of the three most lucrative businesses in the world. However, unlike drugs or weapons, people can be sold over and over again". Dr Hazel Watson

The Appin case

In the Appin case, a man from Bangladesh sold his family land and jewellery to pay more than £20,000 to a trafficker who showed him a contract for a well-paid job as a cook in London. But when he arrived –with a legal visa— he was brought to the isolated Stewart Hotel in the West of Scotland, made to surrender his passport and forced to work up to 22 hours a day, while the promised wages never materialised. Read The Guardian's story about the case.

Victims can be forced into any kind of work, from domestic service, prostitution or tending cannabis plants to staffing a nail salon, begging, or working in agriculture, on building sites or in a factory. And, unless it is a fair trade product, anything you buy could involve slave labour.

Tell-tale signs

Most shocking of all is that modern slavery often goes unnoticed even when it is in plain sight. That is why raising awareness and educating everyone is so important, Dr Watson says.

"This is something which sounds awful but it actually happens in this country and we all have a responsibility to do our part in eradicating this pernicious crime. We need to be aware of the tell-tale signs and report when we are suspicious."

"People who have been trafficked are usually very anxious, very frightened and they are unlikely to come forward asking for help, but they look anxious," Dr Watson notes. They are very often accompanied by another person so they can't speak freely. They are usually malnourished."

"Someone who has been trafficked from overseas, might not be fluent in English or may seem lost and unsure of their surroundings.

"If it's a cannabis growing operation, you might see a house where the blinds are always down and if there is a crack you see bright lights.

"Your suspicions might also be raised if, every morning you see a group of men being picked up in a van and brought back to the house late at night. They could be spending their days labouring under forced conditions on a building site."

In one case here in Scotland, Dr Watson said, a young woman who was seen waving from an upper window was actually being kept a prisoner.

What to do

Dr Watson, who taught nursing students at Glasgow Caledonian University before her retirement, said if you suspect someone is a victim of modern slavery you can help them by reporting your suspicions to the police.

"In Scotland every member of the police has been trained to recognise human trafficking and to know what to do when it is reported to them," she says. "They assure us they would rather be alerted to a potential case than to have this ignored. So if you see something suspicious, please call 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111."

If you wish to arrange for a speaker from the Scottish Churches Anti-Human Trafficking Group to give a talk or run a workshop about human trafficking and modern slavery, you can contact Miriam Weibye, Programme Officer at ACTS for the Group, tel: 01259 222363 or by email: miriamweibye@acts-scotland.org.