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The Government Has Been Warned That Modern Slavery Could Be Surging During The Coronavirus Pandemic

4 min read

Modern slavery reports dropped by a quarter during the coronavirus lockdown, according to Home Office figures, with fears from workers' organisations the pandemic has provided a cover for exploitation.

New data shows 2,209 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) between April and June this year – down 23 percent on the previous three months and down a third since the last quarter of 2019.

Organisation Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) has told PoliticsHome they are worried about the drop in referrals and believe exploitative practices may have got worse as for months labour inspectors were not visiting sites or gathering intelligence.

“The number of referrals may have decreased but that’s not because there’s less cases, or people aren’t being exploited at the moment,” said FLEX officer Letícia Ishibashi.

“During lockdown there were fewer face to face inspections and fewer people self-identified even if they knew the situation they were in.

“We are hearing about unreasonable requests on workers, people failing to adhere to health and safety guidelines. This was the case in lockdown and it’s still the case now.

“The more the recession grows and the more it impacts on people the more we will see cases of people accepting exploitative conditions to work because there’s no alternative.”

Modern slavery is a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Undated handout photo issued by Lincolnshire Police of a caravan which men were forced to live in by the Rooneys, as members of the traveller family have been jailed for running a modern slavery ring.

Potential victims in the UK that come to the attention of ‘first responder’ organisations like local councils and the police are referred to the NRM and get the support of the Home Office.

Gisela Valle, director of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, said they expect reports of modern slavery to rise following the end of the strict lockdown period this spring.

Housekeepers being told to isolate with their employers or risk losing their jobs, was a common theme, Valle said.

“This means they’ve had no freedom, no family life of their own,” she said.

Cleaners have been furloughed by their bosses to the value of just two hours' work a week, when in reality they work far longer hours, while bosses on furlough themselves have used that as an excuse to pass on lower wages to staff, she said.

Between April and June the Home Office statistics show labour exploitation was the most common type of exploitation for adult potential victims and the nationalities of those most commonly referred to the NRM were those from the UK, Albania and Vietnam.

The drop in referrals comes as the Liberal Democrats have made fresh demands for labour inspectors to be classed as key workers by government so they can continue doing face to face visits to premises, and so they are more visible to people who want to come forwards.

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for the Treasury, led a cross-party campaign in Parliament earlier this year to ask the Home Secretary to make sure labour inspectorate bodies are well resourced and classified as key workers.

“We must not be fooled into thinking that fewer victims being identified means fewer people are being exploited. It means far too many victims are trapped in slavery, unable to escape or access support. And it means far too many serious criminals are getting away with it," she said.

“Ministers must give labour market enforcement agencies the funding they need to carry out proactive inspections, and finally end the hostile environment, which prevents too many victims from coming forward.“

There are five workforce inspection bodies; those who work for the local authority and focus on high street inspections, the Health & Safety Executive who carry out inspections at factories and construction sites, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, which is part of central government, and HMRC’s minimum wage team.

The Home Office said the GLAA had continued inspections in high risk areas throughout the pandemic, and to help victims they stopped people leaving modern slavery safehouses between April and August to try and make sure potential victims had somewhere safe to stay.

Commenting on the reduction in NRM referals, a Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to tackling modern slavery and identifying victims during the pandemic and beyond.

“The labour market enforcement bodies have continued to investigate and respond to workers’ complaint and pursuing cases where there is a risk of harm or detriment to individuals during the pandemic.

“We are working closely with the police, the National Crime Agency and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to monitor and assess any emerging changes to the threat of modern slavery to ensure law enforcement activity adapts to the changing environment.”

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