It’s 2016 and the world has never had as many slaves as it does today. 35.8 million people are estimated to be living in conditions of slavery, often trapped in the underground world of forced labour. That world generates $31.6 billion of profit each year. The issue is by no means relegated to war-torn countries and underdeveloped nations – in Britain alone the Home Office has estimated that there are 13,000 slaves at any given time.
This Monday, the 22nd of February, a Modern Slavery Forum will be hosted in the Forum Auditorium, which will give a platform to some of the UK’s most prominent anti-slavery specialists.
the world has never had as many slaves as it does today
I spoke to Faye Gould, who will be speaking at the event. Faye is the founder and coordinator of Restore, a national organization based in Exeter aimed at helping human trafficking victims reclaim their lives.
Faye Gould has always had a hands-on approach to helping others and obtained a degree in Youth and Community Work in 2007 from the University of Exeter. When Faye became involved with housing projects for vulnerable women across Devon and Cornwall, she witnessed how safe accommodation is crucial for abuse victims. This was when human trafficking and modern-day slavery came onto her radar. After spending a couple of years researching the issue, she started Restore with the aim of addressing the lack of support for rescued victims.
Faye explained the process to me – “When someone manages to escape or is rescued, that is only the first stage. The police are very good at gathering intelligence. Victims are put through the National Reference Mechanism (NRM), where they try to decide whether that person’s story is legitimate, and then they place them in one of the 19 safe houses around the country.”
Faye is quick to point out that post-rescue care is inadequate: “As you can imagine a lot of people have experienced a high level of trauma. So it might be that for years they have been beaten or they have had to work in the sex industry against their choice, or they have been malnourished and they haven’t been able to build a community. Their mental health is usually very bad. A lot of people haven’t had an opportunity to learn English”. Furthermore, the government only provides safe accommodation for 45 days. As a result, once victims leave safe housing they have no financial support or means of accessing Job Seeker’s Allowance and housing benefits. Combined with a lack of crucial life skills, such as grocery shopping, budgeting or filling out forms, victims are highly vulnerable to being re-trafficked or further exploited.
This can invalidate governmental efforts. As Faye remarked, “statistics will say that 33-50% of people will be re-trafficked within the first year, so to me it just seems crazy that we are spending all this money to gather intelligence, rescue people and provide safe accommodation, only to leave them stranded […] We offer counselling to help them process what they’ve been through, so they don’t end up using unhealthy coping mechanisms like resorting to drugs, alcohol, self-harming, so try to deal with the problem as well and that obviously takes longer than 45 days”. Restore therefore offers safe housing for up to 12 months and offers training to develop key life skills and interpersonal support via peer networks and befriending initiatives, aimed at fostering positive community bonds.
“33-50% of people will be re-trafficked within the first year”
This gap in aftercare is not addressed by the 2015 Modern Slavery Bill, which Faye regards as nonetheless taking positive steps forward.
Restore is rapidly evolving. Ever since being founded in 2013, the charity has gained more recognition, with local organizations asking them for training. The organization has also just joined the Anti-Slavery Partnership, a country-wide alliance that will allow groups such as Restore to build relationships with decision-making institutions. Soon, they will be able to help more than one person at the time, as they are planning to move into a four-bedroom property. However, this evolution has not been without hurdles.
Landlords have been unwilling to let their properties to human trafficking victims, despite Restore taking care of securing the home. Money has also been as issue; so far the majority of donations come from private donors, with half of all funds coming from sponsored events, such as the Rock Solid race (in which 14 Exeter students will be participating on behalf of Restore). Finding time to apply for funding through charitable bodies is also challenging, but necessary to hire full-time staff in the future.
Luckily, Restore receives a good level of support through Exeter University’s ESV (Exeter Student Volunteers), which has led many to become befrienders or members of the legal and communication team, allowing the organization to reach their maximum student capacity. This has allowed the organization to grow, as students joined the existing team of 15 members. It was students who organised the Modern Slavery Forum, which will include contributions from Faye herself, police chiefs and representatives of organizations fighting against the phenomena.
Nonetheless, the public is only just starting to learn about human trafficking and modern-day slavery. The main problem is that it is easy from human trafficking to pass under the radar. “By all intents and purposes it looks like they can leave”, Faye explained to me. “But you don’t actually know that traffickers have threatened to kill their families or beat them up if they try to leave.” This situation is worsened by the intertwining of public perception with attitudes towards Brexit and immigration. As workers are often involved with seasonal or cash-in-hand jobs, such as fruit and vegetable picking and carwashes, their constant deployment makes them hard to trace for the authorities.
Additionally, the system has not always been equipped to deal with victims, who are often prosecuted for crimes, such as prostitution, benefit fraud or working on a cannabis farm, which they were forced to commit as a result of their conditions. Human trafficking remains one of the main sources of income for organised crime, alongside arms and drug dealing, but trafficking humans remains a far better investment. “It’s easier to smuggle people, they are often more profitable as they can be resold multiple times,” Faye told me.
Human trafficking remains one of the main sources of income for organised crime
But who are the victims Restore is helping? “Generally there are people coming from the EU […] attracted by a ‘legitimate’ job, as they are often desperate in their home countries and often they have children to support. Once they get here they realise there is no legitimate job and that they are being exploited”. Others are British nationals being exploited by their compatriots. They are often referred to Exeter by safe accommodation around the country, especially London where the housing market is saturated. Unfortunately, Faye couldn’t provide more details due to confidentiality.
Despite what many think, sex work isn’t the only form of abuse workers can be subjected to. Victims have also been found working legitimate low-paid jobs, only with their exploiter seizing control of their bank account by posing as a translator at the bank. Once they are trapped, they are often forced into substandard accommodation, such as sharing a bedroom with five other people. Malnourishment is also common, with cases of victims being fed their exploiters’ leftovers.
Victims are clearly hiding in plain sight. They are all round us but skilfully disguised by a mask of fear and oppression. You might well have come across them in your daily life. Carwashes, nail bars and restaurants are all common hotspots for this modern form of exploitation, but the agricultural and manual labour sector has also been flagged as problematic in Devon and Cornwall. Reporting any suspicious activity is crucial “even if you feel stupid doing so” as Faye put it. “You won’t be seeing people tied up with chains and ropes, but there will be signs.” A crowded house from which a lot of people can be seen coming and going, as well as signs of distress, malnourishment and unkemptness are often symptoms of exploitation. Another scenario could be white vans loading and unloading people in your neighbourhood, or an intimidating boss who speaks markedly better English than their foreign and scared employees.
Doubts can be discussed on the Salvation Army’s dedicated 24-hour hotline, but it is crucial that they are reported to the police.
What surprises Faye the most is the attitudes of those they help. “I am amazed by the drive in people to move forward with their lives and wanting to rebuild their lives” she stated. “If I have to be honest, that came as a bit of a surprise to me, as I have worked with UK citizens and you don’t see that, there is more of a victim mentality and living off benefits.”
Finally, Faye highlighted how modern day slavery could be eradicated within a generation if we all collectively took a stand against it. The issue of transparency in the supply chain is soon to surface, but it is crucial that consumers become more aware of the provenance of their purchases, whether it be the case of food or clothing. Slavery remains a very modern phenomenon.