Andrew Wallis is CEO of the anti-slavery charity Unseen. In 2015 he was awarded an OBE for his work that led to the UK Modern Slavery Act. He has written about the problem of modern slavery in the UK, and how the Nationality and Borders Bill will only exacerbate the issue.
Britain once led the world in fighting modern slavery – an evil that traps at least 100,000 victims each year and millions more worldwide.
Now I’m not so sure.
The planned new legislation – the Nationality and Borders Bill – will turn back the clock on dealing with this terrible crime. Meanwhile, our leaders also drag their feet on dealing with businesses flouting existing laws.
I am often asked, “Slavery? Didn’t that end with abolition in the 19th century?”
If only that were true. From sex trafficking to forced labour to domestic servitude to criminal exploitation and even organ harvesting, modern slavery is alive and well today.
Slavery is a lucrative business for organised crime and, judging by the sparse number of convictions for modern slavery offences, carries minimal risk for the offender.
In Great Britain, you’ll find it in illegal car washes, nail salons or children forced to carry drugs known as county lines. But also, we find victims in fields where labourers are forced to work for a pittance and in factories making fashion items for our high streets. The list of severe exploitation of people goes on and on.
It’s not just individuals who are suffering. The impact on the economy is enormous. Government figures state modern slavery costs the UK up to £4.3 billion annually. A recent report puts the potential figure at £32.9 billion a year.
To be fair to politicians, the government has long said it takes the issue extremely seriously.
In 2015 Theresa May introduced the landmark Modern Slavery Act, with a range of measures for dealing with slavery and human trafficking. The Act included the requirement that large companies outline what they’re doing to eradicate modern slavery in their supply chains and day-to-day business practices. The current administration states that it shares this commitment.
However, over the past few years, we’ve been going backwards. And I’m not alone in thinking this. Colleagues in anti-slavery organisations, independent experts, police, lawyers, businesses – all share this view.
So, what’s the solution? Here are two things we could be doing right now.
First, our leaders need to signal to the business community that they will deal with companies that ignore their obligations under the Modern Slavery Act.
Seven years on, after landmark legislation, there are still more than more than 5,000 such companies that break the law. Not one has been prosecuted.
Second, the government needs to scrap Part 5 of its new Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through Parliament.
The Bill’s stated purpose is to address immigration and asylum concerns, particularly concerning the vexed problem of smuggling across the Channel.
But Part 5 of the Bill confusingly also includes changes to how we deal with modern slavery, which is not immigration, smuggling or asylum. Proposed changes will only harm a victim’s chances of accessing support – and ultimately escaping exploitation.
Many modern slavery victims are British nationals – 34% of the total identified in 2020. It makes no sense that they will be adversely affected by laws all about targeting small boat smuggling and immigration.
Much better to amend the existing Modern Slavery Act, improve policy and use statutory regulations. I am sure all MPs genuinely want to end modern slavery and help victims as much as they can.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is not the way to do it.
How you can help – call on your MP to scrap Part 5 of the Bill
It’s one of our last chances to influence the new Nationality and Borders Bill and avert the disaster it poses for modern slavery survivors if passed in its current form. Please write to your MP and join supporters from more than 45 other organisations to show the extent of opposition to elements of this Bill.
We’ve teamed up with fellow charities, including After Exploitation, to put together a template letter asking MPs to scrap Part 5 of the Bill and protect survivors of modern slavery. Find it at http://afterexploitation.eaction.org.uk/scraptheplan