The UK’s fight against modern slavery needs to be a collective, non-hostile effort

In 2019, the ‘Measurement, Action, Freedom’ report was released, in which the UK ranked #1 in the world for its response to modern slavery. Praised for its strong political will, it noted that government action was particularly committed to identification, as well as aiding victims and survivors. However, with the recent reporting of approximately 100,000 victims within the UK (a far cry from the 10,000 predicted in 2017), methods surrounding such commitments should be questioned.

For contextual clarity, it must be established that this crime remains complex. No, slavery is not a new phenomenon, but the umbrella term of modern slavery is. It was not until 2015 that the UK implemented the Modern Slavery Act – a solid foundation, sure, but one where shortcomings are easily pinpointed when compared to Australia and France’s legislation.

Now, the purpose of this writing, rest assured, is not to dissect the bravos and woes of the Modern Slavery Act. It is, instead, to touch upon a vital theme within the report – identification. This is an area that assisted in the solidification of the UK’s ranking. Yet, if we were to strip away the comparative approach, and focus solely on the UK’s actions and climate, could it be said enough is being done to ensure identification? No, not at all.

When the report spoke of government action, it rightly identified the increased systematic training of first responders, as well as mandatory face-to-face training for prosecutors. But what about educating the public? Those who routinely work within high-risk sectors, or those vulnerable to exploitation? This line of questioning flourishes when examining the reaction of the general public concerning the recent “Boohoo scandal”. Yes, albeit some were only alarmed due to the brand involved, others took to social media to spread (accidental?) misinformation surrounding modern slavery. “Not in our country,” some implied, overlooking the statistic that there are 5.4 victims for every 1,000 people worldwide. The words of former anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland summarises it best: ‘We’ve got an understanding, but that understanding is still niche’.

The entanglement between government and public action that shall be touched upon here focuses on 2 key issues: a lack of awareness, and the continuation of “Othering”. You cannot eradicate human rights abuses when education is only presented to a handful of people, nor can you do so when villainising a percentage of victims. Concerning the former, efforts should be made to educate or train the public to spot the signs. As trafficking expert Parosha Chandran elaborates: the “Boohoo scandal” should be ‘a ‘wake-up call’’. Social awareness has and will likely further lead to investigations where no identification would have been made otherwise. This is especially so as the public infiltrates a wide array of sectors first responders and prosecutors do not.

The latter issue is trickier, but to put it plainly, the UK continues to be a hostile environment for many marginalised groups. An example is mentioned in the report – the “so-called” “migrant crisis” has equalled in restrictive immigration policies, and as such, many migrants are vulnerable to exploitation. Now, not all those who travel here are exploited. Similarly, not all those exploited cross borders. But some very much do and are. And whether specifically said, or implied, the words and actions of government members have fostered or stoked the flames of an anti-im/migrant narrative and racial prejudice. If such views are not denounced, it reduces identification. Clarity and openness are restricted. It is time to drop the “Othering” act, the ‘all foreigners cram themselves into a one-bed apartment’ dialogue, and actually see the prospective crime that is potentially occurring right in front of us.

This crime is multifaceted, but that is why the fight against it needs to be a collective effort. Commitment cannot be the training of a few, and the fight against modern slavery cannot be selective. Eradication of this crime requires a collective and objective effort.

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