The fight against modern slavery: domestic progress is being undermined by international failures
Domestic progress: putting victims first
In this blog series, we have highlighted policy failures in the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), that led to victims of slavery having governmental support for their ‘reflection and recovery’ cut off after just 45 days. Not only was that an incredibly short period for people who may have been suffering as a victim of slavery for years, but it meant that proper rehabilitation of victims into society became impossible; without substantial help, nobody can build a new life within 45 days.
Therefore, the news in late October, that victims of modern slavery are going to receive a longer period of state support, is encouraging. Under the reforms to the NRM, the system that identifies and provides victims of slavery with support, victims will now receive 45 days of ‘move-on’ support. Previously, they would have only received 14. Assistance here will range from finding accommodation to the providing of advice and counselling. Now, therefore, confirmed victims will receive a total of 90 days of support.
Other victim support measures announced by the Government include greater support for children, who, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates make up a quarter of the international modern slave population. Independent Child Trafficking Advocates will be rolled out nationally, to ensure that the best interests of child victims are respected. Additionally, ‘places of safety’ will be created for adult victims leaving immediate situations of exploitation they will now be given immediate assistance and advice for up to 3 days before choosing whether to enter the NRM.
Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, welcomed the reforms, saying “Victims of modern slavery have experienced ruthless abuse, violence and exploitation. They require support that meets their individual needs, and the current NRM is not fit to meet this purpose. This is why I have been calling for radical reform of the system, and I gladly welcome the positive changes announced by the Minister today.”
The reforms are not perfect; there is still too much of an onus on individuals to prove their status as victims of slavery and human trafficking, and decisions will remain largely at the caprice of non-specialist civil servants. However, the increased focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator, is encouraging; steps forward are being made to create a humane response system for the victims of slavery.
International failures: turning a blind eye
Whatever we do for victims in the UK will unfortunately always be put into perspective by the prevalence of modern slavery and forced labour internationally, particularly in the supply chains of large businesses. We simply do not know how the things we buy are made, and by whom.
Just last week, the Guardian reported that two of Italy’s largest food companies have been benefitting from ‘conditions of outright exploitation’ in tomato farms. An inquiry to the death of Abdullah Muhammed, a Sudanese immigrant working in a tomato farm in southern Italy, led to revelations of 12 hour working days, seven days a week, without breaks and with only minimal pay. Mr Muhammed suffered a heart attack and died; the allegation against his employer was that his life could have been saved had he been allowed to go to hospital.
Both the refusal to allow workers to seek healthcare, and the long hours for little pay, identify this situation as one of labour exploitation. The tomatoes produced by farms in the south of Italy, where informal work is common and rights protections are rare, are sent to the UK, and sold in our supermarkets. The wilful ignorance of supermarkets such as Tesco to combat the murky origins of its products has been concerning:
“We know in the south of Italy there are some situations that are not in line but we can’t do the work – it’s not our responsibility to verify what happens in the region but we do ask our suppliers to respect human rights” said a spokesperson for Conserve Italia, which supplies tinned tomatoes to Tesco, “We don’t pay less than the normal price.”
As previously discussed in this blog series, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 compels companies with a global annual turnover of £36 million or more must publish what they are doing to prevent slavery in their supply chains. It does not, however, actually oblige them to do anything.
By implicitly condoning abusive labour practices, large businesses are permitting the fruits of forced labour to be sold to unwitting UK consumers. This provides a financial bonus to the perpetrators of acts of modern slavery, spurring them to continue, and undermines domestic efforts to combat the issue.
So, whereas victims in the UK are increasingly well-supported, victims of forced labour and slavery even in other EU states are ignored by their employers and the state in the name of efficiency and cheap goods. Until other states begin to enforce domestic measures against slavery, and UK companies refuse to deal with abusive employers, UK consumers will continue to unknowingly buy goods produced by modern slaves.
If you are concerned about modern slavery in your community, you can contact your local police force on 101 or the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. If in doubt, please report it. There is more information on the National Crime Agency website, here.
*Ben Cartwright is part of René Cassin’s Modern Slavery Campaign Group, find out more about how to get involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org