Three women being freed after being held in slavery for 30 years has brought a hidden problem to the forefront of our minds, and the news, today. The case is particularly striking, not only for the length of time that these women were held, but also for the fact that one of them was British, and that there was no evidence of sexual abuse. This is perhaps not what people think of when they picture victims of slavery.
Firstly, people are still surprised that there are victims of slavery at all in the UK. But even when people do think about slavery in this country, it is often about people who are being sexually exploited—charities working with victims of sexual exploitation have worked very hard to move this up the agenda and have been somewhat successful in this. This has led—thankfully—to more provision for people in these situations.
However, based on the very poor information that we have, domestic servitude and labour exploitation together are more common than sexual exploitation. This government report on human trafficking shows that there were 332 referrals for domestic servitude and labour exploitation compared with 298 for sexual exploitation.
Thames Reach, a charity working with homeless people, has reported that men on the streets are often targeted by gangs that promise them jobs and then force them to work for nothing. The first conviction under the ‘modern day slavery laws’ last year was for labour exploitation—23 men were freed from dreadful conditions, working seven days a week unpaid for their exploiters’ patio and paving business. Again, here a number of the men were British—destitute and vulnerable and able to be taken advantage of.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that yesterday’s victims included a British woman and that, from what we can tell, they weren’t sexually abused. But I’m not sure that this picture of slavery is reflected in the make up of charities working in the sector. The number of charities working overall in slavery and trafficking is small, and they are badly funded, as I argued before in NPC’s report Hard knock life. In particular, though, there seem to be few charities working to help victims of domestic servitude and forced labour. I found it interesting that the victims freed in yesterday’s case went to a forced marriage charity to ask for help—was this because they couldn’t find a charity that dealt specifically with their problem?
I wonder if there is a gap here in the sector and that funders could do more to fill it. There should be better support for victims of slavery and trafficking overall, and there should be better support within that for those people who are forced into labour exploitation and domestic servitude. Perhaps then, more people will know where to go to ask for help.