Modern slavery relates to exploitation of children and adults in slavery, servitude, or forced or compulsory labour. Human trafficking is the recruitment, movement, harbouring or receiving of children and adults through force, coercion or deception for the purposes of exploitation.
The National Referral Mechanism is a framework to identify potential victims of modern slavery and ensure they receive the appropriate support. Referrals for modern slavery and human trafficking have increased: in the year ending December 2022 7,936 referrals were made for potential victims of exploitation that has taken place solely in the UK, an increase of 10.3% on the previous year. It is likely this represents an improved awareness of the modern slavery and human trafficking threat, alongside increased movement across the UK border since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted. All forms of exploitation are underreported.
UK nationals are the most commonly identified victims of modern slavery and human trafficking occurring in the UK, followed by Albanian, Vietnamese, Romanian and Indian nationals. An increase in the number of Albanians referred during 2022 has coincided with increases seen in both small boat arrivals and asylum claims for Albanian nationals.
Criminal exploitation occurs when victims are forced or coerced to commit crime. This is the most commonly reported form of exploitation seen in National Referral Mechanism referrals, and victims are often UK nationals. The most common examples, including for UK nationals, involve drugs offences, such as distributing drugs or cultivating cannabis.
Labour exploitation is where a person is forced to work by way of threats, violence, deception, coercion, abuse of vulnerability, or abuse of position. It is typically seen in labour sectors with lower skilled and lower paid workforces. Ongoing labour shortages in some of these sectors have likely contributed to a rise in labour exploitation in the UK.
Organised crime groups engaged in coerced drug distribution often prioritise children during recruitment, targeting vulnerabilities such as social isolation, poor economic opportunities and being in social care. It is highly likely that increased rates of absence and children missing in education provide opportunities for drug distribution organised crime groups to recruit victims, while also creating barriers to identify those already recruited. Almost two-thirds of British victims of modern slavery and human trafficking are children being exploited for criminality (2,534), many through county lines drug distribution in which organised crime groups transport and sell drugs in other areas, usually moving from cities into smaller towns and rural areas.
The war in Ukraine has reduced the number of seasonal workers coming to the UK from Ukraine. This has resulted in workers being recruited from countries further afield where there are typically fewer labour protections than in Europe. These seasonal workers from outside of Europe are at an increased risk of being exploited in their home countries during the recruitment process, such as in the payment of fees to local brokers leading to potential debt bondage.
Sexual exploitation typically occurs in brothels and escort agencies. Victims, particularly women and girls, are subject to sexual and often physical abuse, with many victims suffering long term psychological distress as a result of their exploitation.
The rising cost of living has almost certainly exacerbated and increased the risks of modern slavery and human trafficking. It is likely that organised crime groups will consider alternative ways to maintain profitability and offset rising costs onto victims, such as spending less on victim welfare. For victims of sexual exploitation, other likely adaptations include coercing victims into providing more risky sexual services, such as unprotected sex, to attract and retain a steady customer base.
Modern slavery indicators may be visible to the public and employers. Look out for these signs and remember that victims can be any gender, age or nationality:
If you suspect someone to be a victim you can report to:
To find out more about how you can recognise the signs of modern slavery in the businesses that you use, visit the NCA’s Ethical Consumer Choice Campaign.
In June 2022, a Bristol couple were jailed for a total of 25 years for trafficking at least 29 adults into the UK over seven years and forcing them to work in a hand car wash and other businesses.
The offenders (image shows one of them being arrested by the NCA) controlled all aspects of their victims’ lives. The victims were kept in squalid conditions in a house, were regularly beaten and threatened, and were forced to hand over their ID documents, phones and bank cards.
Almost £300,000 was transferred from the victims’ bank accounts to the offenders, and the offenders failed to pay their victims nearly £1 million in wages from the car wash.