Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

The truth about modern slavery offenders

Most people convicted of a trafficking or modern slavery offence are a long way from having Crime Boss on their CV

David Gadd Rose Broad
17 February 2022, 7.00am
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel
Barbara Cook/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

As the 2021 Borders and Nationality Bill is debated within the UK’s House of Lords, NGOs representing victims of modern slavery are campaigning to have part five of the legislation removed. In a brutal extension of the hostile environment policy, this section: introduces the premise of ‘trauma deadlines’ which deny victims of trafficking access to support if they do not share details of their abuse quickly enough; raises the thresholds against which the veracity of the claims of potential victims of trafficking will be tested while reducing the circumstances in which leave to remain will be granted; and seeks to disqualify those victims who have committed crimes or who represent a “threat to public order” from protection.

The position of the British Home Office is that such harsh remedies are required to "break the business model" of organised criminal networks of people smugglers and traffickers, whose profiteering has driven an “alarming rise” in “child rapists, people who pose a threat to national security, serious criminals and failed asylum seekers … abusing our modern slavery system”. How exactly making life harder for people who have been exploited will break the business model of organised crime is difficult to fathom. Global inequality and immigration policy ‘organise’ the illicit markets for irregular migration and labour exploitation far more than criminals ever could, and the “business model” of those who facilitate illegal entry into the UK – if there is one – is simply to turn the government’s distaste for migrants into an opportunity for profit. Continuing to fortify the walls only supports this model. It doesn’t dismantle it.

Further questions must be asked about who the people convicted of trafficking and modern slavery offenses actually are, and whether it is accurate to characterise them as ‘gang members’ or ‘organised criminals’ at all. For if that characterisation doesn’t hold, it’s difficult to understand what the Borders and Nationality Bill could effectively “break”, no matter how draconian it is. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that most of those being depicted as posing an imminent threat to the UK’s security are not what popular culture would have us believe.

Mr Bigs, profiting substantially from organised crime, are only a tiny minority of those convicted.

Between 2018 and 2021 we interviewed 21 men and nine women convicted of smuggling and modern slavery offences in the UK. They were implicated in: trafficking for sexual exploitation; arranging or entering into sham or forced marriages; keeping people in domestic servitude; facilitating illegal entry into the UK; labour exploitation; exploiting vulnerable people to supply illicit drugs; and supplying food, drugs or alcohol in exchange for labour or sex to vulnerable and/or young people. From a criminal justice perspective they were serious offenders, and all but one were serving prison sentences from six months to 12 years.

Yet our research shows that their motives did not fit neatly with the narrative being used by the Home Office to justify the provisions of the Borders and Nationality Bill. Mr Bigs, profiting substantially from organised crime, are only a tiny minority of those convicted of people smuggling, people trafficking, and modern slavery offences in the UK. Many are substitutable actors within chains of migration. Quite a few are destitute people who are also victims of exploitation, while others are actually British business people failing to ensure compliance with immigration regulations.

Serious and organised criminals?

A small subsample of the men we interviewed did fit the stereotypes of organised criminals to some degree. Idris, for example, was a former Nigerian police chief who had hired destitute people to smuggle drugs across international borders, all while being protected by serving officers back home. Darius was a former Romanian police officer who laundered money, including some that derived from the international proceeds of sex work. And John had been the muscle for protection rackets in metropolitan nightclubs before he took a job smuggling people from Paris into the UK.

But these three men were not necessarily typical of those convicted of modern slavery offences – around a quarter of whom are women. Nor were they those serving the longest sentences. More common were individuals simply caught on the wrong side of 21st century globalisation, and many had had their lives destroyed by the legacies of colonialism before the UK added destitution and the threat of deportation to their lists of injury.

Rasheed, for example, was serving 12 years for purchasing a sham marriage. He had grown up in indentured labour on the Pakistan/Afghan border and first came to the UK on a tourist visa. Once here he became a victim of acute exploitation in a British off-licence, where he both worked and lived to send money home. He told us that he was tricked into paying for a marriage to avoid being deported. Similarly, Estelle, a woman from Cape Verde, was pushed to arrange sham marriages between Nigerian men and Portuguese women in order to pay off her significant gambling debts. She received four years in prison.

Vicki was a UK national in her 20s serving seven years in prison for exploiting others via county lines drug dealing. After losing her mother to cancer as a young teenager and being expelled from school, Vicki left her hometown at 14 to live in the care of her brother. The two of them were persuaded by an uncle to become involved in distributing drugs as a way to avoid becoming homeless.

While we could go on, there isn't space to relate the life stories of all 30 individuals here. Instead, we will focus on three groups often singled out in the justifications for new the Borders and Nationality Bill: sex traffickers, people smugglers, and labour exploiters.

Sex traffickers

Among those who were found guilty of trafficking adults for the purpose of sexual exploitation, all claimed to be working with sex workers who understood the nature of the work they had committed to. They also claimed that, where foreign nationals were involved, they had come to the UK in search of better pay after first undertaking sex work in their countries of origin. Only one interviewee appeared to be physically forcing women to sell themselves.

That was Adam, a Hungarian national, who had taken his sexual partner’s passport after he “rescued” her from another family in the UK who were sexually exploiting her and selling her into a “sham marriage”. Adam subsequently physically assaulted this woman after she did “bad things” like “smoking drugs” and as a reminder that she needed to pay her way in the house where he and his family lived, either by undertaking sex work or completing domestic chores. The exploited woman eventually “grassed” on Adam and his family, providing the evidence that led to their conviction.

The stories told by convicted people smugglers, though also troubling reflections of a globally unequal world, were morally comprehensible.

Conversely, Faziel considered himself to be running an elite “escort service”. Some of the Thai women involved were able business women, though others, it materialised, were less successful and vulnerable to exploitation. Andrei, a Romanian heroin user, who came to the UK partly in search of drug treatment, designed websites for the women who lived with their male partners in a house he shared. And Anton, another Romanian who had worked in low paid agricultural and construction work in Western Europe, was little more than a low paid taxi driver for women travelling between sex work jobs and/or the airport. This included driving his partner, who described herself as a “masseur” and who was working in the sex industry to finance her cancer treatment.

Two of the three women interviewed in this category were former sex workers. Grace and Sandra had become brothel keepers partly to establish better working environments for themselves and other women, and in Grace’s case also to escape domestic servitude. Nina, who also ran a brothel, did so in collaboration with a male partner who had subjected her to near lethal domestic abuse.

People smugglers

The stories told by convicted people smugglers, though troubling reflections of a globally unequal world, were, to varying degrees, morally comprehensible. Bob and John, both men with long histories of criminal involvement and prison records, were two smugglers who drove foreign nationals across borders. They were aware that travel debts would have to be repaid on arrival, but saw little wrong in helping people who were coming to work. Neither was involved in exploiting those people who entered the UK and both were appalled to learn others did so. They were simply “drivers”.

Others thought it was right to help fellow refugees like themselves. Alesandro, for example, was a long-term unemployed Albanian refugee with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a teenage combatant in the Balkans. He went to collect clothing from a lorry as a favour to a man who had lent him money to pay for his brother’s medical care. How genuine his “surprise” was when he discovered the lorry contained not clothes but other Eastern European migrants was hard to gauge in the interview. Regardless, he saw them as refugees with similar backgrounds of trauma and destitution to his own and thought it right to give them a hand.

Others charged with smuggling offences claimed to have been duped into transporting undocumented migrants, either because they did not know their passengers were hiding in their vehicles, or because the passengers convinced them they had a right to enter the UK until this was challenged by border enforcement officers.

Labour exploiters

Among those involved in hiring workers who became exploited, one shopkeeper and landlord, Sammy, saw himself as doing a favour to his British and Eastern European tenants, offering them small amounts of work and “leftover food” from his takeaway shop. A married couple, both of whom worked very long hours as public sector professionals, thought they had done a “good” thing by bringing two destitute Nigerian teenagers to work for them as domestic helpers to care for their children. The young women were provided with the prospect of an education and money to send back home. The tide turned when the young women presented themselves as ‘victims of modern slavery’, which they possibly did because they had been denied a right to remain in the UK and because some of their earnings were paid directly to their fathers. And Charles, the staffing lead of an international logistics company and the only participant who had not served a prison sentence, had failed to explore the terms under which Romanian migrant labour was supplied to a meat processing factory where profit margins were tight.

So what is the truth about modern slavery offenders?

In The Truth About Modern Slavery, Emily Kenway, the former policy adviser to the UK's first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, explains how:

Modern slavery as a metaphor for severe exploitation and as a political frame constructs a way of seeing that makes us blind to things we need to know. By characterising severe exploitation as exceptional … it also produces ... moral legitimacy for the very policies that enable severe exploitation in the first place. (p.9)

We concur with Kenway’s analysis, but think there are further considerations to add with regard to the very small number of offenders convicted of such offences. Contrary to what the architects of modern slavery policy have asserted, modern slavery offenders are not a coherent group with common motives reducible to “evil” or “organised crime gangs”. Their offending cannot be reduced to a singular cause or deterred by tough talk and hostile immigration policies, however much politicians might wish it to be.

One reason why some modern slavery offenders fail to recognise the stark choices victims face is that they have quite serious histories of social disadvantage of their own, including childhood abuse, drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder, unmanageable debts, substance dependencies, and experiences of also being exploited. This subgroup of offenders are victims too, illustrating that unless we support victims adequately we risk increasing the number of people desperate enough to consider exploiting others.

Other perpetrators of modern slavery include business people working at the margins of legality, or within firms that lack the capacity to compete in certain industries when immigration rules change. Some of the individuals we talked to had attempted to reach out to regulators or law enforcement before they were arrested. The responses they received, however, merely confirmed a need to cover up what was happening to protect co-workers, including migrant workers at risk of deportation. This suggests that there is much to be gained from trying to support and regulate legitimate businesses that are hiring migrant workers and/or working in industries where margins have become tight, particularly when regulatory or employment frameworks change.

Modern slavery discourse has so thoroughly blinded us that we now need to speak to those cast as ‘evil perpetrators’ to appreciate how UK policies enable severe exploitation.

A truth about the sex trafficking of adults, as Kenway also argues, is that sex work is primarily undertaken by women who see few other means of meeting their financial needs. In order to do this in countries where sex workers have no rights, they have to rely on others to provide transport, accommodation, IT support and physical security: people who inevitably do so on their own terms in an industry that is unregulated because it is illicit.

A truth about labour exploitation is that it typically involves the underpayment of people who, like sex workers, lack employment rights and/or owe money to the people who facilitated their journeys. It is this lack of protection that blurs the line between smuggling and the exploitation that is definitive of ‘trafficking’. The reasons why those who are exploited become so indebted is not reducible to the greed or callousness of organised crime groups. Rather, the smuggled pay substantially more than Western tourists to cross international borders because governments have made them hazardous to cross. Many can only afford the trip by taking on debt, which then pushes them to accept work from whomever is willing to give it to them. In this way, border control policies and employment laws compound the problem of modern slavery more often than they redress it.

The unpalatable truth is that modern slavery discourse has so thoroughly blinded us that we now need to speak to those cast as ‘evil perpetrators’ to appreciate how UK policies enable severe exploitation by pushing vulnerable people to become dependent on people who are thoroughly unsuited to caring for them. As it stands, the Borders and Nationality Bill will do little to rectify this major oversight. It will compound the plights of vulnerable people, some whom will feel they have little choice but to exploit others in order to survive their extremely precarious predicaments.

This article draws on research laid out in greater detail in our forthcoming book, Demystifying Modern Slavery, which is due out with Routledge later this year. All names used in this piece are pseudonyms.

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