If you are shocked by the proposition that there are slaves in modern Britain, think again. Today’s “slaves” are not out in the open, like the Africans transported to the US in the 18th and 19th centuries, and except in the most extreme cases they do not wear chains.
They live in unremarkable houses and flats where they are forced to do hard physical labour, provide sexual “services” or, in some cases, both. Last week’s announcement that police had rescued three women from alleged domestic servitude in south London is startling because of the time-scale, which apparently covers three decades. Not much is known about this extraordinary case but it has focused attention on a problem which is mostly hidden from view.
Concealment is the key to modern slavery. According to the International Labour Organisation, almost 21 million people are victims worldwide, with women and girls outnumbering men. Trafficking for prostitution and sexual exploitation has received a great deal of attention but forced labour is actually more common, especially in the domestic and agricultural sectors. I have interviewed victims of both and in each case they were tricked by trusted family members or friends. Last year I met a 41-year-old woman from the Caribbean who spent almost a year in domestic servitude with a middle-class Nigerian family.
“Crystal” agreed to talk to me for my book The Public Woman because she wanted people to understand what is going on behind closed doors in this country. She was allowed out of the house only with a woman from the same island, who had been promised her freedom once she trained Crystal as her replacement. They spent 18 hours a day washing walls and floors, ironing, sweeping up leaves – and doing it all again if the couple was dissatisfied. “These people could have killed me and no one would have been the wiser,” Crystal told me. Like most victims of human trafficking, she knew she was in the UK illegally and was too scared to go to the authorities in case she was deported; she had suffered extreme domestic violence at home and was terrified of her ex-husband, who had threatened to kill her.
Traffickers encourage their victims to believe that the police won’t help them, and they use tried and tested methods to break down their self-esteem. In Crystal’s case, the Nigerian woman who paid for her to come to England knew she had been beaten and raped by her husband. They were both evangelical Christians and spoke on the phone many times before Crystal got on a plane; it was a classic grooming process but the woman ruthlessly exploited Crystal’s vulnerabilities once she was in her power. “You are like filth”, she told her. “The only thing you are good for is cleaning the kitchen and my baby’s bum.”
I was reminded of a harrowing interview I did with a Ukrainian woman in her early twenties. She had been sold by her father and uncle, without her knowledge, to a gang who brought her to London and sold her on to Russian gangsters. They forced her to work in brothels up and down the country for more than three years, and beat her savagely when she tried to escape. “They were saying I’m illegal and they could kill me because I didn’t exist here,” she told me. “They said I’m their property, I will be with them for the rest of my life – I’m not human, just something that can be bought.”
It is this daily experience of intimidation and abuse – what a senior police officer calls “invisible handcuffs” – which prevents so many victims contacting the authorities. It is a chilling fact that some of the most vulnerable people in this country do not know they have any rights, and their exploiters go to great lengths to stop them finding out.
But there is another element to this story of 21st-century slavery. The British government has set up a forced marriage unit which helps young women (and some young men) who are being threatened with being married against their will. But it is much harder to reach women who have been brought to this country to marry distant relatives, only to discover that they are in effect domestic slaves for the entire family.
A case-worker for a non- governmental organisation which helps South Asian victims of domestic violence told me she has heard of women living in British cities for years without leaving the house. They do not know that domestic violence is a criminal offence, and they have no idea where to go if they manage to escape.
Investigations are continuing into the Lambeth case, with police saying they have uncovered a “complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years”. Calls have been flooding in to Freedom Charity, founded by Aneeta Prem, which helped organise the women’s escape, suggesting that the problem is much wider than anyone imagined.
Perhaps this case, like the Savile investigation before it, will at least have the positive effect of breaking a silence which has denied help to many victims for decades.
Joan Smith is the co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel