Anew global report on slavery has estimated there are more than 40 million people trapped in slavery worldwide. Many of us will have rarely thought about the immense scale of modern-day slavery, assuming that slavery only exists in faraway lands. But that assumption is wrong.
Have you ever had your nails done at a salon? Do you have your car hand-washed? Have you ever had building work done, or had a new driveway laid? If so, the chances are you may have come across someone who is enslaved. The harsh reality is that modern slavery not only exists in the UK, but it is on the rise. It is all around us – in nail bars, car washes, hotels, restaurants, farms and building sites. I myself was ignorant about modern-day slavery until I came across an online article a few years ago, and I have been researching it ever since. So much so, that I decided to write a novel to highlight this problem that is superficially hidden, and yet is brazenly happening right under our noses.
The trafficking of enslaved people from Vietnam to work in the nail bar industryhas been of particular concern for the UK independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, who asked for tighter regulation of the industry in a recent report. Traffickers charge their victims tens of thousands of pounds, and lure them on false promises of good employment and accommodation. Upon arrival, they are exploited and abused; one worker was paid just £30 for a week’s work, another had to work in two salons for only £6.50 an hour, was locked away between shifts, and forced to give his money to the traffickers for transporting him between salons.
The hand car wash is another trade where modern slavery is rife. Enslaved people are paid very little, and often deprived of the right clothing or equipment to do their jobs safely. In 2015 it was reported that Hampshire police rescued 11 people from one car wash in 2015, some of whom had been sleeping on the floor of a storage container. That was said to be their “home”. They were allegedly forced to work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. This is the reality for some of the people who wash our cars in 21st-century Britain.
In another case, 11 members of the Rooney family in Lincolnshire were convicted of targeting vulnerable people, including homeless men and those with learning difficulties, forcing them to work long hours laying driveways for little or no money. They lived in squalid, inhumane conditions, while the family enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle.
Domestic servitude, as featured in my novel Razia, is a form of slavery that is perhaps even tougher to detect, and consequently harder for the victims to escape from. London Legal Support Trust cites the case of Gita, who was trafficked into the UK, abused and made to work as a maid without pay from the age of five. She eventually escaped after 10 years; she was initially homeless, and later placed in care.
As a lawyer by profession, and a women’s charity worker, I have come across some women who have told me that they were forced to stay in a house, cook and clean around the clock, provide sex on demand, were not allowed to go out or tell anyone about their circumstances, and were subjected to physical violence and emotional and financial abuse; this is slavery.
What can be done? The introduction of the Slavery Act in 2015 was a huge step forward, but the government must do more. While it requires companies to publish an annual statement about slavery, this only applies to companies with an annual turnover of more than £36m, which means smaller businesses escape the net. There needs to be stiffer regulation of industries where modern slavery is known to be a particular problem, and the requirement for reporting should be mandatory.
We also have a responsibility to act as individuals. There are often tell-tale signs someone may have been forced into slavery: a lack of identity documents or personal possessions, unsuitable or frequently worn clothing, poor living conditions, a reluctance to make eye contact, unwillingness to talk, or seek help. We must not simply turn a blind eye to the condition of the person who has painted our nails, or washed our car; people have a responsibility to report any suspicions to the modern slavery helpline (0800 0121 700).
• Abda Khan is a writer and the author of the novel Razia