Tackling modern slavery

Last week saw the disturbing news from the National Crime Agency (NCA) that the criminal offences of modern slavery and human trafficking are far more prevalent in the UK than previously thought. On 10 August the NCA released figures showing there are currently more than 300 live policing operations targeting modern slavery in the UK, including:

  • The arrests of three men in north east England with suspected links to a Romanian organised crime group using the internet to advertise the services of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation, and then forcing them to launder the proceeds through criminally controlled bank accounts. Ten women were safeguarded. Across Europe, the group and its wider network are suspected to have made around €5 million in criminal profits.
  • The rescue and safeguarding of five Slovakian men encountered during an investigation into allegations of forced labour in the Bristol area. A man and woman with links to a car wash business were arrested, and are suspected of being part of a wider organised crime group.
  • A surge in operational activity focusing on labour and sexual exploitation co-ordinated by the NCA through May and June, codenamed Operation Aidant, which led to 111 arrests in the UK and some 130 people being encountered who may be considered as victims.

Linked operational activity also took place on mainland Europe resulting in around 40 further arrests and the launch of 25 further investigations as a result of intelligence gained. In addition, the number of people being referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) as potential victims of modern slavery continues to rise. For more see Legal update, New guidance published on the National Referral Mechanism for victims of modern slavery and Blog, Modern slavery reporting Q1.

It is rarely surprising when particular crimes turn out to be more prevalent than official figures suggest. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) is a relatively new piece of legislation that consolidates the law on slavery and trafficking to create  three criminal offences:

  • Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.
  • Human trafficking.
  • Committing any offence with the intent to commit human trafficking.

For the first offence, an individual or company commits an offence if they:

  • Hold another person in slavery or servitude.
  • Require another person to perform forced or compulsory labour.

The mental element of the offence is both a subjective and an objective: the circumstances must be such that the person knows or ought to have known that this was happening. In determining whether a person is being held in slavery or servitude, the court will have regard to all the circumstances, including:

  • Any of the person’s personal circumstances which may make them more vulnerable than others (such as being a child, their family relationships or any mental or physical illness).
  • Any work or services provided by the person, including work or services provided in circumstances that constitute exploitation.

An  individual’s consent to travel or to act, whether they are an adult or a child, does not preclude a determination that the person is being held in slavery or servitude or is being required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

For the second offence, a person commits an offence of human trafficking if they arrange or facilitate the travel of another with a view to them being exploited. This may be by recruiting, transporting or transferring, harbouring or receiving a person, or transferring or exchanging control over them. Again, the mental element is tested objectively and subjectively: did the person suspected of committing the offence know or ought to have known that another person was likely to be exploited during or after the travel. Exploitation is defined as

  • Securing services by force, threats or deception constitutes exploitation, as does using force, threats or deception to induce the victim to either:
  • Provide another person with benefits of any kind.
  • Enable another person to acquire benefits of any kind.

The third offence broadens the previous trafficking offence applying it to any form of exploitation.

The report also revealed that:

  • The most common nationalities of victims brought into the UK are from Eastern Europe, Vietnam and Nigeria.
  • There are cases of modern slavery in “every large town and city in the country”, and tens of thousands of victims across the UK.
  • The more the NCA examines the problem of modern slavery, the greater the discovery of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable.
  • Modern slavery victims are put to work in many roles including prostitution, and working at car washes, in nail bars and in the construction, agriculture and food processing industries.
  • People going about their normal daily lives are likely to come across vulnerable victims engaged in these activities. Some of these victims will not appreciate that they are victims.

In response the NCA has begun a new campaign focused on sexual and labour exploitation. The campaign will highlight the signs of modern slavery which people may encounter in their everyday lives, and encourage them to report it. The public is encouraged to look for signs of modern slavery, such as visible injuries, a distressed appearance and any indication that they are being controlled by another person, for more on guidance for health visitors see Legal update, Guide to spotting signs of domestic slavery published by Institute of Health Visitors.

The NCA’s Will Kerr said:

“This is a crime which affects all types of communities across every part of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to spot because often victims don’t even know they are being exploited. Nevertheless we need those communities to be our eyes and ears. There will be people living and working where victims come into contact with everyone else’s so-called normal lives. They may see something they feel is not quite right. That might be someone seeming afraid, vulnerable or being controlled, moved around or forced to work against their will. If they do, we need the public to speak to us”.

One of the difficulties faced in tacking modern slavery is getting victims to cooperate with the police. A story from 11 August 2017 confirms the problem, where four Vietnamese workers detained in a disused nuclear bunker in order to work on a cannabis factory refused to cooperate with the police, leading to charges being dropped.

New legislation and awareness campaigns are of course welcome. But the key issue in tackling modern slavery will be building trust with those trafficked and enslaved, and encouraging more people to give evidence. This will require acceptance that those involved in lower levels of criminality, for example the cultivation of cannabis or prostitution, do not feel that going to the authorities will result in either their prosecution or their deportation. Similarly, as another prosecution made public last week demonstrates, those involved in exploitation are often the most vulnerable in society, perhaps less likely to seek the protection of the authorities.

This also involves challenging the perception that criminal cases can be routinely prosecuted without the use of criminal informants. In another very sad case revealed this week, the prosecution of a number of men in the north of England for the sexual exploitation of girls and young women, the disclosure that a convicted sex offender was acting as a covert human intelligence source (CHIS) for a police force, and paid a reward of £10,000, was met with “outrage” in the media and from some charities. This ignores the reality that organised criminal networks are very hard to tackle without outside information.

For more information see Note for the board on offences under Modern Slavery Act 2015 and Practice note, Sentencing modern slavery offences.

Paul Brooks of Practical Law will be speaking on modern slavery at the Cambridge Symposium at Jesus College Cambridge on Thursday 7 September.

Practical Law David Bacon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *