Think slavery is a thing of the past? Think again

IoS campaign highlights the thousands who fall victim to enslavement in Britain almost 180 years after its abolition.

William Wilberforce said future generations of Britons would see slavery as "a disgrace and dishonour to this country", yet, more than 200 years since its abolition, the shaming trade and exploitation of human beings still thrives.

Tomorrow will mark Britain's first ever Anti-Slavery Day, intended to highlight the plight of the thousands of people in the UK and around the world who fall victim to its modern incarnation every year.

While Britain has much to celebrate since taking a determined stance against the trade in 1807, experts warn that the UK is failing to act against the continuing scandal of slavery on our doorstep.

Across the country, people of all ages and races are being coerced to work against their will, often under the threat of violence. Some of these "slaves" may get paid – but frequently their "wages" are derisory sums, far below the legal minimum.

They include the 4,000 people, mostly women, who are trafficked annually into the UK, to work in the sex trade; the hundreds of domestic servants locked away with no pay; the innumerable underground migrants forced to toil in fields for little or no wages by gangmasters; or the children smuggled into the country to farm drugs, beg or steal.

Anthony Steen, the former Tory MP for Totnes and now chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, saw his Private Member's Bill to establish a national Anti-Slavery Day go through all its Commons stages in February. "Everybody believes in the back of their minds that slavery has gone, but it hasn't; it's still a canker in our society," he said.

Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said: "When we're talking about slavery in the UK today, we are not using a metaphor. Slavery describes the condition of people controlled through either force or coercion and made to work without pay in our factories, restaurants and on building sites. Even everyday homes can hide people unable to escape slavery, including abused domestic workers, women trafficked into prostitution and children forced to be 'gardeners' on cannabis farms."

MPs will debate the issue tomorrow, but critics argue that the Government, for all the talk, is failing to live up to its ancestors' proud record.

Britain's anti-slavery legislation is now weaker than the rest of Europe's thanks to the coalition's decision to opt out of an EU directive on human trafficking. The directive includes an agreed definition of the crime that makes it easier to prosecute offenders and guarantees greater protection to victims. Police and legal experts complain that existing UK trafficking laws make it notoriously hard to prosecute offenders. There have been just 10 convictions for labour trafficking under the Asylum and Immigration Act of 2004, and 140 convictions for trafficking under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.

The hidden nature of the crime makes getting accurate victim numbers difficult – in part, because so little police, academic and government time is devoted to it. One senior police source said official inaction came down to one thing: "Victims of human trafficking cannot vote."

What statistical evidence exists offers a disturbing glimpse of the extent of the problem. Kalayaan, a charity working with domestic slaves, helped 356 escaping servitude last year alone. In April, a Scotland Yard investigation into organised networks trafficking children to the UK discovered that 180 children had been taken from a single Romanian village.

Despite this, the UK Human Trafficking Centre insists, in figures released today, that just 215 children were referred to the authorities as victims of trafficking between April 2009 and June 2010. In the same period, 59 Vietnamese children were referred to the authorities as potential victims, the vast majority brought to the UK to look after cannabis farms.

When suspected child victims are discovered and taken into care, such is the lack of protection given that many go missing and are believed to be lured back into the control of the gangs that brought them here.

Christine Beddoe, director of End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, said: "The Government's response is appalling. We don't just need to release people from the cannabis factory or brothels, we need to provide the support that means they can have their lives back and get back on the road to healthy adulthood. That's just not happening at the minute."

Ms Beddoe believes adopting the EU directive would improve matters. "It is unacceptable to put party politics ahead of the safety of some of the most vulnerable in our society."

Anti-slavery campaigners are also concerned that funding for Operation Golf, Scotland Yard's successful operation targeting Romanian gangs that force children into crime, will soon run out, and there is little confidence that it will be renewed. The Met's human trafficking team was closed nine months ago.

Funding for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) is also under threat. Set up following the Morecambe Bay disaster when at least 21 Chinese cocklepickers drowned while working for an illegal gang, its funding is threatened by cuts. Instead of facing cuts, critics argue, the GLA should be expanding its remit to tackle the exploitation of workers in industries other than agriculture, forestry and food processing.

Agricultural work: Trapped in a low-paid job from dawn till dusk

Nikhil, 25, was picking cabbages and cauliflower in a Gloucestershire field for an unlicensed gangmaster when The Independent on Sunday spoke to him. "I came here from India as a student to do a diploma in hotel management and I needed money. This is not what I thought I'd be doing; I thought I'd be working in a shopping mall or a restaurant, but I couldn't find other work.

"I'm picked up at 6am and get dropped back late in the evening. We get about £28 a day, but what we do is piecework. We are worried that if we don't pick enough the money will be low.

"I wasn't given any protective clothing – but my friends told me to buy some boots. I've heard that the minimum wage is £5.81 an hour, but my boss didn't tell me. I don't make anything near that amount. I'd rather work on my own land now, having seen what the jobs here are like.

"For people like myself, things will always be like this. And I can't protest or nobody else will employ me."

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority is currently investigating his employers.

Sex trafficking: Locked up and forced to have sex with 20 men a night

Thippawal, 36, from Bangkok, paid an agency to bring her to Britain for restaurant work in 2008 so she could send money home for her daughter's schooling. But when she arrived in the UK she was locked up and made to work as a prostitute.

"When I got to Heathrow, the man that met me took my passport. He took me to a house in west London and said I had to work as a prostitute. I showed them the contract which said I had to work in a restaurant, but they just laughed. They said if I tried to leave I would die. They made me work 24 hours a day saying I had to pay off my debt to them for bringing me over – which they said was £65,000. I had to have sex with 20 men a night and some of them would hit me.

"I tried to escape three times and when they caught me they stabbed my ankles with a knife. I was never paid. After a month I managed to get out and called the police from a hotel who saw my cuts and bruises but didn't take photos or interview me. So in court, there was not enough evidence. Now my family have been threatened."

Thippawal was sheltered in a safe house by the Poppy Project.

Domestic slavery: No pay for being on call 24 hours a day

Izzeldin Ahmed, 50, is a father of five from Sudan. For the past nine years he worked in virtual slavery for Sheikh Mohammed Ibrahim and Naglagla Ibrahim – members of the Saudi royal family. The Ibrahims paid him nothing for working 24 hours a day during the six months of each year he spent in London – only giving him what amounted to less than £7 a day on his return to Saudi Arabia. Now an employment tribunal has ruled they must pay him almost £200,000 in unpaid wages. "For six months of the year the family would be in London. They would take my passport and they never paid me any wages in Britain. If we tried to leave in London we would get nothing. They would pay me in Saudi Arabia – and then it would be about £200 a month.

"I was on call 24 hours a day. I had to drive them around and stand for up to three hours at a time waiting for them outside restaurants or cinemas. I had to always be in sight. They would call me a donkey, a monkey, a dog.

"One day he told me I was sacked and put me out on the street in London. I had no way of getting home."

Child smuggling: Made to beg and steal in London

A group of 28 Romanian children were placed in care last week after a police raid on suspected child traffickers in east London. The children, aged from three to 17, were brought to the UK and forced to beg and steal in central London. A boy of three was taken to hospital with bruises and facial injuries. In some cases their parents in Romania are understood to have handed their kids over to gangs who have loaned them money at high interest rates.

Drugs trade: Children working on cannabis farm

A 15-year-old Vietnamese boy found during a police raid on a house in Doncaster, along with £85,000-worth of cannabis, had been working since he was 12, trafficked via France with the promise of a factory job. He was too scared to leave, having been beaten. He became aware that he was involved in criminal activity only nine days before his arrest, but was still sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty to farming the drugs. The EU trafficking directive would protect victims like him from such sentences.

IoS campaign

The Independent on Sunday today launches a campaign urging the Government to sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking. The directive will strengthen our laws to protect victims and make it easier to prosecute those who enslave them. Readers can call on David Cameron and Nick Clegg to do the right thing by signing the petition on the campaigning website 38 Degrees.

To sign the petition, go to: www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/stop-human-trafficking

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