The dirty secret of Britain’s modern slavery

Exploited: There are believed to be around 40 million slaves around the world.

Could it be that today’s horrific slave trade is partly the fault of all of us? A shock report yesterday showed that over 5,000 victims of slavery were referred to UK authorities last year.

“I had to work all the time, without a day off, and I slept on the floor … She’d shout at me, saying I was stupid or calling me a ‘dog’ … I was rarely allowed outside the house … I was given just a piece of bread and cup of tea for the whole day. I became emaciated. I felt like a slave, like I was in prison. I wanted to run away, but they had my passport.”

Elvira is now 50. She is from the Philippines, and in the underworld of modern British slavery, she is one of the lucky ones. She escaped.

A report has revealed that 5,145 people have not been so fortunate. That is the number of potential victims of trafficking and slavery flagged to the National Referral Mechanism, which identifies and supports victims. This was the highest number recorded by the UK authorities since the figures were first compiled — and a 35% rise from 2016.

The analysis showed that 116 different nationalities made up the referrals. For the first time, British nationals made up the highest number of cases with 819. Next were Albanians and Vietnamese. The number of child victims rose by 66%.

But what do we mean by “modern slavery”?

Under the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, an offence is committed if someone holds another in slavery or servitude, or requires them to perform compulsory labour. Slaves are sometimes paid a very small amount of money. The key is being illegally bonded to a boss who can exploit you as he likes.

While many modern slaves work as prostitutes or in the drugs trade, some are found in the most ordinary occupations, such as the construction industry and agriculture.

Human trafficking is now a huge industry in the UK, affecting every major town. A report in October found that about 4,000 teenagers from London are being trafficked every year to sell drugs in rural towns and regional cities. The gangs are violent, rich and organised.

There is probably a slave within walking distance of where you are right now. Yet this scandal has been allowed to continue and grow. Are we all at fault?

The slaves next door

“The reason slavery exists is that we let it”, says The Guardian’s editorial. British people nowadays are completely cut off from their communities. About 70% of people do not know their neighbours’ full names. With that level of atomisation, how could we spot a modern slave? This is the result of a selfish, greedy society.

It is much more complex than that, reply others. Most slaves and slave-holders come from lawless, war-torn countries or places where human trafficking is rife. In fact the National Crime Agency said the rise in numbers was "driven by greater awareness”. We are fighting this. But poverty and greed will always exist — and therefore so will slavery.

You Decide

  1. Should we blame ourselves for the rise in slavery in Britain?
  2. Can we ever hope to totally wipe out slavery?


  1. In groups, design a poster and slogan which encapsulates the issues raised in this story, and present them to the class.
  2. Compare and contrast slavery today with slavery from over 100 years ago. Write 500 words on your findings.

Some People Say...

“Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature — opposition to it is his love of justice.”

Abraham Lincoln

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Over 5,000 suspected victims of slavery were referred to the UK authorities last year, but we can be fairly sure that the real number of slaves is much higher. In 2014, the government combined data from the UK border force and charities to come up with a figure of 14,000. We know that the majority of slaves are foreign nationals, especially from Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
What do we not know?
What can be done about it. The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 was the first such law to be passed in Europe, but slavery has only increased in the years since. We also do not know how accurate many slavery-related figures are. Many slaves are found in war zones or countries with restricted access for international organisations.

Word Watch

At just 16% of the number of people referred, this is still a very low proportion.
Next were Albanians and Vietnamese
This was followed by China, Nigeria and Romania. Albanian and Nigerian cases most commonly involved sexual exploitation, while the majority of Vietnamese cases involved labour exploitation.
Modern Slavery Act of 2015
The legislation increased the maximum jail term for people traffickers from 14 years to life. It also gives victims extra protection against prosecutions for offences committed as part of their exploitation and provides victims access to legal aid. It was pushed through by Theresa May while she was home secretary under David Cameron’s government.
Sell drugs in rural towns and regional cities
This is known as “country lines”.
70% of people
According to research from Churchill Home Insurance in 2013.


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