Today is the UK's second Anti-slavery Day with a series of activities taking place to highlight the issues of modern day slavery and human trafficking.
Raising the profile of this issue is important. Slavery still exists in the UK today in a variety of different forms, despite a raft of different laws and regulations available to stop it and bring offenders to justice.
What is JRF's contribution to this movement to stamp out contemporary slavery? We are funding research to understand more about the scope of forced labour – how big a problem is it and where do we find it? We’re supporting work that records the voices of workers who have been exploited very badly in the workplace. We’re also looking at ways to improve enforcement, business practices and support for victims. Three of our reports are already published and a number will follow in the first half of 2012.
So, what are we learning about forced labour?
Forced labour is not an isolated phenomenon that you can box off and say is completely separate from the rest of the labour market. It is part of the labour market. This is not an all-or-nothing issue – the research shows a sliding scale of exploitation. At one end you have decent work and at the other extreme we see levels of abuse that are tantamount to slavery, such as failure to pay wages, appalling living conditions and threats.
Forced labour happens in sectors characterised by long hours, low pay, dirty and difficult manual work and sometimes where the employer has to respond to sudden peaks and troughs of demand. Food processing, agriculture and construction are examples. But still most employers do not exploit their employees, so what we are trying to understand more about is why some decide to behave in this way.
Another aspect to this is that most people in modern slavery are migrant workers. Whole elements of the process of migration can make some migrants vulnerable to exploitation, including:
- recruitment overseas for jobs that don't materialise;
- vulnerable workers isolated from the local communities;
- the need to pay off huge debts and send money home; and
- lack of English and lack of knowledge of how work works in the UK.
Finally, we can learn so much more about the problem by listening to the very people who have been exploited: the workers. Two upcoming reports from JRF – one on the experiences of Chinese migrant workers and the other on the food industry – include the results of almost 100 in-depth interviews with migrant workers from a range of sectors. Some of the stories are traumatic and extreme, but overall they tell a very sad tale of some workplaces in the UK.