The Modern Slavery Bill: does the British government really care?

If we are really serious about abolishing slavery in the west today, Rahila Gupta argues that we have to abolish immigration controls so that people can take action against their abusers without fearing deportation.

Rahila Gupta
13 January 2014

At the Conservative party conference in 2013, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, announced that the government will be introducing an anti-slavery bill in this parliamentary session and specifically mentioned the Luton case, where homeless men were abducted by an Irish traveller family and made to work long hours for little or no pay, as an example of modern day slavery. The issue received further press attention when news of three women, imprisoned and enslaved for 30 years in South London, surfaced in November; police and commentators expressed their shock that slavery could be ‘hidden in plain sight’ in modern day Britain. However, that case turned out to be atypical of modern slavery in Britain as the women belonged to an absurd Maoist cult which expected the imminent liberation of the Borough of Lambeth by the Chinese Red Army.

My own extensive research has revealed that, whilst slavery is all around us, the Luton case is also atypical because the victims of slavery are rarely British nationals. Although homelessness, alcohol or drug dependency, mental health issues and poverty, as in the Luton case, can make people vulnerable to exploitation, or the stigma attached to prostitution can enforce compliance with the most horrific abuse, the vast majority of people in these situations are immigrants without the right papers or those whose passports are held by unscrupulous employers, pimps, traffickers or abusive husbands. Without recognition of this key fact, any new legislation drawn up to deal with this issue will simply clutter the statute book without serving any useful function.

So what does the Bill propose? The two main proposals are a life sentence for previously convicted traffickers and the creation of a new post of an anti-slavery commissioner to ensure implementation of the law. Currently, there are not that many previously convicted traffickers. Under legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004 there have been about 8 to 25 convictions in any one year from 2005 to 2011, the majority of which dealt with sex trafficking. Even Theresa May was forced to concede that the convictions rates were ‘shockingly low’. So the proposal to increase sentencing for serious repeat offenders does not mean much yet – at least, until we have more convictions. Under the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, only one illegal gangmaster has been given a prison sentence, for exploiting Lithuanian chicken workers, during the eight years that the Gangmaster Licensing Authority (GLA) has been in operation. Many gangmasters are simply given a ‘warning notice.’ GLA was under-resourced from the beginning but its effectiveness has been further compromised by budget cuts of 17 per cent from 2011-2014.

We may hope that the appointment of an anti-slavery commissioner could rectify this sorry state of affairs. However, many campaigners believe that the way this post will be set up, appointed by and directly under the control of the Home Secretary with limited resources will not give the commissioner the wide-ranging powers necessary to ensure the effective implementation of current legislation -  let alone the Bill if it is passed into law

While the Bill proposes to bring together and consolidate all the different pieces of anti-trafficking legislation, it does nothing to enhance protection of the ‘victims’ of trafficking or improve the way in which the system is currently operating. A report published by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, Hidden in Plain Sight, highlights the many failings of the system: from a failure to identify victims through a myopic definition of trafficking to gross discrimination against those who have been trafficked from outside of Britain or the EU to treating victims as criminals because they have been forced into illegal activity by their traffickers. It used to be common practice for police to raid a brothel or a factory accompanied by immigration officers whose primary interest was to ferret out illegal immigrants. There are some reported improvements in this area but any victims of trafficking that the enforcement bodies come across, who were not part of a ‘rescue’ operation, are still likely to be considered immigration offenders. Almost all the ‘failings’ can be attributed to the government’s attempt to keep immigration figures low. The greater the number of people identified as trafficked, the greater the government’s responsibilities towards them under the European Convention against Trafficking, to which the government is a signatory. It obliges the government to provide counselling, medical care, legal support, safe accommodation, a 45-day period of ‘reflection’ and a one-year residence permit to those who co-operate with the police in actions against the traffickers.

Whilst anti-trafficking organisations, like ECPAT and Anti-Slavery International, are doing sterling work, chipping away at the laws, policies and practices that discriminate against victims of trafficking, their success is bound to be limited by the government’s anti-immigration hysteria. This central contradiction at the heart of government policy becomes as clear as crystal when you look at the bills going through Parliament now: the Immigration Bill, which aims to create a 'hostile environment' for irregular migrants by turning landlords, doctors, bankers into border control guard-dogs, sits alongside the Modern Day Slavery Bill which aims to help a target group which overlaps with irregular migrants. 

The other unacknowledged contradiction in government policy is the tension between providing employers with a ‘flexible workforce’ ie an ever-ready pool of cheap, exploitable labour to depress wages and keep inflation low at home whilst publicly declaiming their support for British jobs for British workers in a bid to wrest ground back from UKIP. The workers for the Lithuanian gangmaster, mentioned above, were collecting free range eggs sold through major retailers including Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury's - all members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. Within this framework, the ineffectiveness of GLA should be seen not as a weakness but part of a deliberate strategy. A blog on the Migrant Rights Network website states, ‘that farmer unions have effectively lobbied some sympathetic Conservative ministers and backbenchers to try and offload the GLA on to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), who have on many occasions expressed great keenness to “abolish” the authority and have in the past “consistently argued for the abolition of the GLA”’. This kind of pressure, no doubt, contributes to reduced funding for GLA.

I have focused on trafficking because the new slavery bill focuses on trafficking but this can lead to a misguided elision of the two issues. Trafficking is not the only way in which migrants find themselves enslaved but it is the only route through which the government makes a half-decent stab at doing something about slavery. Those migrants, including asylum seekers, who are escaping war, torture, environmental degradation and/or poverty and have paid people-smuggling gangs to bring them into this country, get no protection even though many of them end up in slavery. They are seen as complicit in immigration offences despite the fact that many of them are fleeing the consequences of British foreign policy or British presence in their countries. Millions of people in other countries have been forced to make way for large dams, oil pipelines and agricultural plantations in which UK companies are involved, often as a condition of UK aid money, such as the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, and the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. Similarly women who have come in on a spousal visa but have become overstayers or otherwise unwittingly broken immigration laws because their passports are withheld by violent husbands are also enslaved.

If we are really serious about abolishing slavery in the west today, we have to abolish immigration controls so that people feel able to take their complaints of violence and abuse to the police without fearing deportation.

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