It's a Guy Thing

Unchanged melody: modern day slavery

I vividly recall, as a young cop, being locked in a police cell in Bracknell police station. The prank was orchestrated by a couple of the shift elders and was part and parcel of the rituals of being accepted into the fold. Scaring new recruits shitless was a 1980s tradition that typified the slow transition from a military style police force to a more progressive police service.

On reflection, and now as a post-graduate criminologist, I’m probably being a little too kind to this phase of my former career, since there were also some right bastards who donned the tall helmet and Dr Marten boots. Whatever the psychology behind this particular event, I was nonetheless traumatised by that handful of minutes spent in horrid, dark isolation, with my ultimate freedom at the behest of my excited colleagues who mocked me through the small cell hatch. Perhaps being claustrophobic didn’t help either. Eventually I was released and laughed it off on the outside, but on the inside the loss of my freedom was truly terrifying. 

Liberty is, of course, conditional. There is no such thing as unfettered freedom. Laws exist to protect us, yet in doing so they restrict the notion of, in the words of Lynyrd Skynyrd, being as free as a bird. In western democracies these curbs are generally consensual and for the benefit of the majority. My freedom to kill exists, but the penalties make me dismiss this choice and I know that, if caught, I would end up in cell. Since murder detection rates in the UK are pretty high (around 64%), the chances of eventually being locked up remain substantially high too. I have, nevertheless, broken the law on several occasions. Speeding fines and points on my driving licence have previously been levied on me, and I got precariously fucking close to losing my licence some years back when I amassed nine penalty points ─ three short of an outright ban. For a few months I drove more cautiously than I imagine Miss Daisy would, had she  been forced to assume chauffeuring duties. 

I thought that my long past infinitesimal incident of incarceration had been confined to my ancient memories, until a news bulletin captured my interest whilst enjoying the freedom of a holiday in the sun-kissed southern tip of Tenerife where, following my third pint of San Miguel, the thought of any restrictions on my ability to do what the hell I wanted to (within the confines of domestic Spanish law) had ebbed away. The King in waiting, Prince William, and his wife Kate, whilst on a Royal tour of the Caribbean had become embroiled in the eye of a historic slavery storm. I had a sudden flashback to the time I was in Zanzibar, a beautiful and exotic island to the east of Tanzania; a sliver of landmass separated from the mighty African continent. On a scorching hot day, after a short taxi ride from my luxurious hotel complex, I was feeling horribly claustrophobic, with my head stooped and my heart bursting under my sweat soaked T-shirt. This experience was truly, gut wrenchingly, gruesome. This dark, cruel place situated within the former capital of Stone Town had once been a place of human captivity. One hundred and forty-four years earlier this beautiful island was home to one of the last open slave markets and I was located within a holding pen. On this occasion my mouth was agape, not in awe, but in shame. Simultaneously, this momentary reflection  transported me back to that cramped awful cell in Bracknell police station. My brain activity sparked and the connections, whilst frenetic, were frighteningly short of answers. 

What had led to the legitimisation of this most grievous of crimes against humanity? Could it ever be repeated? Surely we are too advanced to ever tread that path again. The awful reality is that humanity is often terribly flawed. For every incredible human achievement why do we then purposely self-harm? A piece of the human psyche I will never truly understand. No wonder the Royal entourage flinched in the media spotlight; yet, the truth is the British elite were major players within this abhorrent crime against the most fundamental of all human rights. And should we simply loosen the grip of recurrent repentance and let bygones be bygones? 

In an instant my cerebral cartwheels centred my attention upon Curly Wurlys, a chocolate bar loved by kids of my generation and in particular one lady I’d met a few years earlier ─ Clare, a leading authority on the phenomenon of modern-day slavery. As I recalled, she happened to be hooked on Curly Wurlys too ─ disclosing her sweet tooth addiction at the start of an enlightening introductory presentation, amid a myriad of initial training events I had attended in my capacity as a newly elected second tier politician. 

I felt instantly ashamed as it suddenly occurred to me that slavery was not some topic of historical debate; it was still enveloped within the darker folds of humanity, and perhaps Prince William’s uneasy experience was something of a more pressing contemporary issue. I just needed a few cogs in my headspace to crank together and to open my eyes to a subject that, by simply prefacing it with the word ‘modern’ tended to suggest that it was less terrifying than that hellhole in Zanzibar, the yesteryear brutality that William and Kate were rightly being battered about, and of course my moment of captivity. Controlling another’s liberty outside of the criminal justice system is unconscionably wrong, however one wishes to frame it or indeed name it. I needed to speak to Clare again, but this time I was equipped with many more questions and a desire to shine a light into a dark corner of human behaviour. 

Why is it called modern day slavery? 

Clare drew breath as if she were about to commence a 5K run, and as her detailed and disturbing dialogue developed, I immediately realised why a contemporary definition was necessary. 

“When we hear the word ‘slavery’ we are immediately transported back in history to the transatlantic slave trade where people were bought and sold to work in cotton fields and plantations in shackles and completely under the control of their master. It looks completely different in the modern era and there are more slaves alive today than ever before.” Clare qualified her statement with the shocking disclosure of an estimated fifty million people worldwide who are categorised as slaves. Just shy of the population of Spain. Or two-thirds of the entire inhabitants of the United Kingdom. Absolutely astonishing. 

“Modern day slavery is the exploitation and abuse of people targeted as commodities for either personal, commercial, or criminal gain. It’s about people not having choices and their lives being completely controlled usually through coercion. It’s less about chaining people up and more about the psychological and emotional aspects of total control.” Clare outlined a distressing list of typical scenarios ─ people working desperately long hours under oppressive conditions including living in a specific place and being forced to pay for accommodation and food. 

Clare continued, “This can occur in every industry from construction to car washes and nail bars, etc. Basically, anywhere that needs a volume of workers. There is also sexual exploitation, such as off-street prostitution, online pornography, massage parlours, telephone sex lines and lap dancing clubs.” A more chilling facet of this horrific practise emerged: “The grooming of children for sexual exploitation is prevalent, although nowadays there are many toolkits and trained people allowing it to be spotted at a much earlier stage; however, domestic servitude is probably the hardest to identify because this happens behind closed doors. In this case a family forces a victim to do all the domestic chores ─ working exceptionally long hours and sometimes not allowing them to leave the residence.” 

Debt bondage is a truly terrifying ordeal where a contrived obligation to pay for often dilapidated accommodation and food leads to additional and sinister practises where other family members are subject of an implied liability. It is commonplace for primary and secondary victims to pay by way of the unthinkable – forced marriages and the utterly grotesque trade in body parts. 

Who are the primary victims? 

Clare immediately addressed the common misconception that people trafficking is exclusively orchestrated from abroad: “It is the movement of persons for the purpose of exploitation, and it doesn’t have to be over  great distances.” Indigenous victims are commonplace within the criminal web of abuse. 

Clare graphically underlined the domestic situation: “I think what may shock British people is the number of their fellow citizens who are traded as slaves. In 2020 the Home Office reported that there were more recorded British victims of modern slavery than any other nationality.”   

“There is no typical victim of modern day slavery, albeit people with certain attributes are often targeted ─ for example, people who are isolated from mainstream society; those with substance misuse issues, mental health and learning disabilities are prime victims, and the criminal gangs acknowledge that in any subsequent criminal complaint they would be classed as unreliable witnesses.” To the miserable list Clare added illegal immigrants who had the constant peril of deportation. 

She pleaded, “I really want people to know that anybody can become a victim. Please don’t stereotype by putting people in boxes. What we should be looking at are the indicators of modern slavery.” 

Where do ordinary people come into contact with this abuse of humanity? 

Clare sombrely summed up the hiding of victims in plain sight: “Ordinary people will come into contact with incidents of modern slavery on a daily basis.” 

“You will probably interact with the crime or walk past somebody embroiled within it without realising. Obviously, there are the worldwide sweatshops that make clothes delivered to the UK. Not so long ago a supplier to fashion giants Boohoo ─ operating from a Leicester factory ─ came under an exploitation investigation. Much of the harvesting of cocoa beans relies on child slavery.”    

“We may live next door to somebody that’s been cuckooed ─ where an offender moves in and controls the occupant. Car washes, nail bars and restaurants are also common locations.” 

This may seem a daft question, but do victims always know that they are being controlled? 

Clare quickly reassured me that this wasn’t a daft question. “Often they don’t. One of the biggest vulnerabilities of enslaved people is that they don’t identify themselves as victims. Much of the time they don’t see themselves being controlled; it also depends on who exploits them. They may have a relationship with that person ─ be they a family member, boyfriend, girlfriend, or employer.” She added chillingly that in many cases the victim believes they have a better life than they did before. 

“In car washes, for example, they may be getting paid more than they would in their own country. The accommodation provided, even though it is often uninhabitable, convinces many victims of their good fortune so they will never see themselves as being controlled. Some see their abusers as life savers. Exploiters take advantage of this and brainwash people into believing that they are helping them out. In time it becomes normalised behaviour.” 

“It is similar to domestic abuse. We call it a trauma bond ─ also known as 

 Stockholm Syndrome. Even though an exploiter is abusing them, there’s still some kind of bond. Sometimes they actually think they are complicit in what’s happening.”  

What is the extent of the violations against victims’ human rights, and can you please provide examples? 

“Victims can be tortured, beaten, and subject to many other forms of violence including psychological torment. Threats can also be made against their family. They live in constant fear. Basic life necessities such as food and water are regularly withheld.” 

Clare illustrated this utter torment with a vivid example: “A man who was enslaved for about fifteen years was given accommodation to live in. The conditions were totally squalid. There was no running water and no toilet facilities. He was living with the exploiters’ dogs so there were dog faeces and human faeces inside the small property, and he had to sleep on the floor because much of it was used for storage. He was often beaten.” 

“He wasn’t given much food and from the very start was threatened with death. Sometimes, when he was beaten, his abusers failed to take him to hospital because they didn’t want to raise suspicion.”  

“Victims might not see themselves as victims because they have been groomed. Often when people think of grooming, they think of child sexual exploitation, but actually anybody exploited goes through the grooming process. It makes them believe that the person is being good to them, or that they consented to what’s happening to them. Even an adult can be groomed.” 

How can victims escape? 

“In order for a victim to escape they must realise what’s happening to them  – and this is often almost impossible without external help. It is so dependent on other people looking out for them and spotting the signs of modern slavery ─ asking those questions and simply being  nosey. I always say if something doesn’t seem right then it probably isn’t, and it’s better to do something rather than nothing at all. I have a mantra ─ see something, say something, sort it. That’s what we should all be doing. It’s so important that there is more awareness among the general public about what modern slavery and exploitation is, because without that victims aren’t going to be identified. We all need to be aware of the control methods used, often right under our noses.”  

How complicit are we in the UK? 

Clare didn’t mince her words: “We are complicit in the UK. As consumers we  benefit from modern day slavery since it is commonly entwined within our supply chains. People who are trafficked into the UK aspiring to a better life are vulnerable ─ they are promised a job and it’s all deceit.” 

“In the UK today, there are an estimated 13,000 victims. But how realistic is that figure? We are highly likely to come into contact with an abused victim every day.” 

At its core, humanity should be beautiful, inclusive, and caring, especially to those who are vulnerable. Sometimes I am utterly bewildered and ashamed to be part of the human race. This is one of those rare occasions. For those who perpetrate this crime I have nothing but hatred. For victims, I cannot imagine what horrors you are experiencing. For me and the rest of us it is time to heed Clare’s words ─ see something, say something. 

© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke