Modern slavery: Spotting the signs

By Paul Broadbent, Chief Executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA)

What would you do if later today you were to discover Health and Safety rules were being flouted on a regular basis inside your restaurant?

Or what if you became aware of a culture of bullying and harassment towards colleagues at your hotel or pub?

What would your response be if you witnessed someone being discriminated against because of their ethnicity, religion or gender?

You’d act.

And you’d do so, not simply because all three of those things are illegal and the law demands it, but because they are morally reprehensible and you have a duty not to look the other way.

So, why do so many people (and organisations) turn a blind eye to modern slavery and forced labour?

I suspect it’s a combination of things; maybe they’re in denial about it happening on their doorstep, are afraid to confront it for fear of their business being caught up in an investigation or, more damningly, they are aware but choose to say nothing because it’s commercially convenient.

Whatever the reason, the simple fact is they are all excuses; and they are excuses that won’t wash in the eyes of the law any longer.

Modern slavery is abhorrent; it is described by the Prime Minister as ‘the greatest human rights issue of our time.’

And it is happening right now in businesses up and down the country.

Thousands of people being forced to work for little or no pay, often in appalling conditions and with the threat of violence hanging over them if they step out of line.

Much of it is controlled by organised crime gangs who have links to drug smuggling, guns and violence.

They know full well the enormous profits that can be made from using people as a commodity.

And the added ‘bonus’ was, until recently, the risks for them were much lower.

Imagine the police response to a van being stopped on the motorway and found to contain drugs or firearms.

Those involved would undoubtedly face long prison sentences.

Now, picture the same van being stopped, only this time the driver is simply carrying half a dozen people.

The chances of being arrested are much less unless there are any firm suspicions that something’s amiss and the van would be allowed to go on its way. Except the people inside may well have been trafficked into the UK and are being forced to work.

That’s precisely why organised crime gangs have moved into human trafficking, modern slavery and labour exploitation; it’s lucrative and the risks are low.

Thankfully, that’s beginning to change. The criminal justice system is rising to the challenge of the threat posed by modern slavery and is fighting back.

It is estimated that there are between 10,000-13,000 slaves in the UK but there may be many more.

Slavery and labour exploitation has infiltrated legitimate supply chains from retail, construction, care homes and the food sector.

And yes, it’s also happening right now within the hotel and hospitality industry.

How do we know? Well, my organisation - the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) - has carried out risk analysis of labour exploitation across the UK. And our research shows the hospitality sector has been infiltrated by slavers and exploiters.

We know exploitation goes on within cleaning and hospitality and is prevalent amongst the Latin American community.

Although the majority of information appears to suggest this is a London centric problem, we believe it may be more widespread across the country.

These exploitative practices are happening within the hotel sector, particularly with contract cleaning and outsourced functions.

The complex supply chains which exist within the sector make it easier for traffickers and slavers to infiltrate and operate.

Thankfully, action is being taken and the Stop Slavery Hotel Industry Network - set up with the Shiva Foundation with the support and endorsement of the British Hospitality Association - to combat modern slavery in UK hotels - is in direct response to this threat.

It took the deaths of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 to focus the nation fully on the extreme costs of severe worker exploitation. The tragedy on that freezing February night brought about new legislation that resulted in the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA.)

Since then the GLA has sought to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable workers. However, the authority’s powers were limited and its remit restricted to the fresh produce sector – agriculture, horticulture, shellfish gathering and all associated processing and packaging.

Now, we are being given sweeping new powers and a broadened remit to investigate all forms of labour exploitation.

Our job is to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and in May this year we will become the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).

We will have specialist officers with police-style powers of arrest to investigate forced labour and human trafficking. But we will also look into other labour market offences for the first time – such as failure to pay National Minimum Wage (NMW) and breaches of the Employment Agency Act.

I’m confident the GLAA will have a major impact on disrupting and dismantling modern slavery networks that have established themselves within the UK.

In time, the Modern Slavery Act will become as familiar, and important, to employers as both the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Equality Act in ensuring their businesses fully comply with the law and the welfare of employees is looked after.

But enforcement alone won’t defeat the slavers and traffickers.

The only way we will rid ourselves of this repugnant practice is for it to become socially and morally unacceptable.

And that’s where you come in.

Whether you’re the owner of a small hotel, a licensee of a pub, or director at one of the world’s biggest hotel chains, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to prevent people from being forced to work.

Unsure what to look for? We have produced specific guidance that can help you spot the signs of labour exploitation. Click here to read it.

You can also learn more about the GLAA by visiting our website or call us free and confidentially on 0800 432 0804 to report any suspicions or knowledge about labour exploitation.

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