Don't turn a blind eye to modern slavery

Written by: Roger Bannister | Published:
Image credit: Oivind Hovland/ Alamy Stock Photo

As a country we are becoming more mindful of the need to recycle our waste.

But are we as informed as we could be in thinking about the people who actually work in the recycling and waste disposal centres? Are we aware that some of the most vulnerable individuals in Europe are exploited for their labour right here in the UK?

I appreciate that this might come as a shock to some of you – after all, slavery was abolished in the UK hundreds of years ago and we rightly regard ourselves as one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to protecting workers’ rights.

Despite this, modern slavery and labour abuse continue to this day across all industries, with thousands of people exploited in the workplace.

We at the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) are determined to stamp out all archaic and inhumane working practices and bring down those unscrupulous bosses who prey on their workers.

Earlier this year we published a report on the nature and scale of labour exploitation across the UK, which I would highly recommend you take a look at.

In this, our intelligence suggests that vulnerable people, often with insufficient English language skills, are placed in recycling centres. The workers tend to come from Eastern European countries such as Romania, Lithuania and Moldova. In total, six nationalities were identified in our report.

Exploitation may also be occurring in clothing recycling factories, with juvenile workers present. Within this, we have suspicions that some companies in this sector are involved in the illegal exportation of waste material.

Evidence also exists of workers living in shipping containers and portable buildings. Needless to say, this breaches planning and health and safety regulations before we even consider any exploitation.

Other problems identified are not restricted to the recycling and waste sector. Issues such as prolonged working hours, non-payment of the National Minimum Wage, verbal abuse and threats are common themes we have seen and are doing our utmost to tackle with our partners.

Much of this is controlled by organised criminal gangs, who are only too aware of the profits they can make from using people as commodities. They believe the risks are worth taking, bearing in mind how lucrative a business it is for them.

However, along with the rest of the criminal justice system we are fighting back against the challenge posed by modern slavery and labour exploitation.

Just over one year ago, the government demonstrated the faith it has by handing us new police-style powers. We can now tackle abuse across the labour market, search and seize evidence and investigate modern slavery in the workplace. Our broader remit also means we have the ability to go after repeat offenders and rogue businesses.

Over the past 12 months, we have recruited dozens of highly skilled individuals to our organisation. We have experienced analysts, investigators and intelligence managers.

Naturally the government expects a return on its investment, and to date I believe our results speak for themselves. More than 100 arrests, 181 investigations and a doubling of our workforce is testament to the hard work of our staff in disrupting and dismantling modern slavery networks which have developed across the UK.

I believe this is all the more impressive when you consider that we have achieved this with only around 125 members of staff across our entire organisation.

However, with such finite resources, we accept that we can achieve so much more by working in partnership with other organisations. Our positive relationships with colleagues in the police, central and local government, charities and business are fundamental to any success in the fight against modern slavery.

More importantly, we rely on those of you reading this to help us.

Spotting the signs

You might be thinking, ‘What can I do? I’m not a modern slavery expert.’ And while spotting modern slavery and labour exploitation might not be easy, there are a number of key indicators we use that can be broadly divided into six sections: restricted freedom, behaviour, working conditions, accommodation, finances, and appearance.

Restricted freedom can encompass everything from victims not being in possession of their passports, having no access to medical care, being subjected to threats against family members, or never speaking about normal activities outside of work. The absence of normality is sometimes a sign in itself.

Behaviour can be something as relatively innocuous as a worker being unable to speak English fluently. This is an issue in the recycling and waste industry, as we have touched upon earlier. However, suspicious behaviour extends far beyond this, to workers having a distrust of the authorities, never leaving their place of work without their boss, and resorting to crime for money or food.

Exploitative working conditions are pretty self-explanatory. Modern slavery victims are likely to work excessive hours, have no days off, be forced to work under poor conditions and lack the ability to choose when or where they work.

Similarly, if workers are living in sub-standard accommodation, in groups where they work, or in other degrading, unsuitable places, they may well be suffering from exploitation.

In terms of financial exploitation, victims may receive little or no payment, have no access to their earnings, or be disciplined through punishment and fines. They can be charged for services they do not want, be forced to open bank accounts and sign documents to receive benefits or loans.

With appearance, has someone suffered injuries that appear to be the result of an assault? Have they suffered injuries that could be related to someone having control over them? If so, then they very well could be a victim of modern slavery.

The most important thing is to make sure you actually act if you spot any of these signs. I know this sounds clichéd, but one call to us really can change people’s lives forever. Doing nothing is not an option as the exploitation will continue and probably worsen. We all have a moral and ethical responsibility to put an end to this repugnant practice.

If you have any suspicions, please do not hesitate in speaking to our dedicated intelligence team on 0800 4320804 or emailing intelligence@glaa.gsi.gov.uk.

Our website www.gla.gov.uk has more information on labour exploitation and best practice for businesses.

I have only had the privilege of being chief executive for a few months, but I already see an organisation committed to working really well with reputable, law-abiding organisations, and all those fantastic charities providing support to potential victims.

By working together, we can defeat modern slavery and protect vulnerable workers from labour abuse and exploitation.

Roger Bannister is chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority


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