When considering modern day slavery, we are most likely to cite victims of sex trafficking, domestic servitude and forced labour: those who, under false pretences of job opportunities or threats of violence, are imported from their country of origin and made to work for their employers for no wage, often living in appalling conditions and experiencing abuse, malnourishment, working for over 12 hours a day. However, what is not often considered is the existence of coerced, exploitative labour within this country of vulnerable citizens, both immigrants and nationals.
The most recent recession led to a huge increase in cases of homelessness, a stretching of soup kitchen and safe house resources, many of those sleeping rough suffering from alcohol and drug addictions. The abundance of vulnerable individuals marginalised from society provides easy pickings for those seeking to exploit. Gangs approach the most desperate with a lure of employment, yet after accepting the offer, workers are coerced into 5am to 11pm shifts for as little as £2-£3 per day. Rather than a gateway out of poverty, such exploitation feeds a vicious cycle: they are homeless because they are exploited, and exploited because they are homeless.
These gangs reportedly target open soup kitchens as well as penetrating indoor food banks, pretending to be homeless in order to gain access to potential victims. Whilst these gangs often work independently for their own ends, many make up ‘recruitmen
t agencies’, supplying workers to larger construction corporations, big businesses thereby complicit in the extortion.
Last year 511 were exploited in this way, however this is a gross underestimate. The new draft of the Slavery Bill aims to reduce evidential burdens with clauses on human trafficking for exploitation as well as slavery, servitude and forced labour. Whilst this may help those victims of forced labour, it will mean nothing for those coerced by the gangs into cheap labour. As it is legally perceived as consensual employment, such extortion will remain particularly hard to prosecute; those destitute are perceived to have ‘chosen’ to be exploited. The gangs and ‘recruitment agencies’ thereby rely on such legal impunity.
Exploitative labour is not just as a problem for the road workers of Jharkhand, the migrant construction workers in Saudi Arabia or the sweatshop workers of China, but as a global problem for the developed and developing world. And for the solution to an international problem, we need an international reaction.