Living conditions inside the bunker where Vietnamese workers were found in Wiltshire. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The Rooney family’s enslavement of at least 18 victims made headlines earlier this month, revealing that the isolation and marginalisation of the most vulnerable in our society creates the perfect conditions for slavery for those willing to capitalise from this sense of desperation.
11 members of the Linchonshire family were found to have been actively seeking and exploiting vulnerable people, such as drug addicts, the homeless and those pushed to the margins of society. Promising stable employment and accommodation, the family captivated their victims and forced them into conditions of desperation and malnutrition through physically and mentally abusive behaviour.
Soon after this story was broken, another case was brought to light. In Wiltshire, Vietnamese men were found to be living in conditions of slavery, forced to work in an underground bunker growing cannabis — locked behind a 5 inch thick door with no freedom to leave.
In the second case, charges of slavery were dropped after the victims refused an offer to be identified as victims of human trafficking. Although one of the victims claimed asylum in the UK, three were subsequently deported for immigration offences.
In June, three men in the UK were sentenced for modern slavery offences after trafficking workers to the UK and subjecting them to lives of poverty and forced labour. The victims had been working in legitimate factories and warehouses, reluctant to reach out for help due to the violence shown by their captors.
These three cases highlight wider structural issues facing employment and the protection of workers in the UK today. Crucially, they underscore the inability of the government to ensure the security and comfort of those living and working in this country. Once again we are faced with a situation where those subjected to extreme hardship and exploitation feel unable or unwilling to go to law enforcement bodies or social services for help and support. In the Rooney case, the lack of adequate social welfare services is glaringly apparent, demonstrating the ways in which a lack of social security can lead malicious people to act upon their desire for capital, despite the trauma and pain this causes to others.
Since 2014, it seems the government has taken active steps to raise the profile of modern slavery in the UK, releasing promotional materials enabling citizens to identify slavery in practice, and encourage victims to report crimes committed against them.
However, these materials have several extreme shortfalls relating to their representation of conditions that could be categorised as anything other than slavery under UK law. For example, the ‘Domestic Slavery: It’s Closer Than You Think‘ poster depicts a domestic worker being physically abused by her employer. Although the acts shown are clear crimes under the Offences Against the Person Act, the poster does not tell us how exactly to identify conditions of slavery. In fact, the domestic worker pictured could also be a victim of exploitative labour practices unprotected by UK law.
Many cleaners and domestic staff have been found to be working under incredibly unfair conditions; payed minimum wage to work under intense pressure and sanctioned when unachievable standards are not met. Recent campaigns at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences have shown how cleaners are not given the same employment benefits as other staff, such as holiday pay or a fair wage.
It is also important to note that much of the illegal activity towards domestic workers happens behind closed doors. Often trapped into conditions they feel they cannot escape, and financially dependent on their employers, domestic workers (who are predominantly migrants) find it difficult to negotiate their situation and hold those responsible to account.
The point here is that although the Modern Slavery Act of 2015 defines slavery as a situation where “the person requires another person to perform forced or compulsory labour and the circumstances are such that the person knows or ought to know that the other person is being required to perform forced or compulsory labour” 1(1a). However, we find instances of modern slavery or conditions of extreme exploitation in everyday life — enforced by a lack of adequate social services, a national minimum wage that leaves many unable to make ends meet, harsh and alienating immigration laws (Hönig, 2014; Walters, 2002; Manjivar and Kantsroom, 2014) and a government who show a lack of compassion for those pushed to these ends.
Although Theresa May has promised £33 million for a 5-year-plan that aims to find out where slaves are being trafficked from, it seems her and her government do not realise the effects of austerity in supporting the harsh exploitation of both migrant and British-national workers in the UK.
For example, despite mass-media attention, the government seems to have been inactive in combatting the exploitation of farmworkers. Migrant workers are forced into incredible hardship — with reports of working weeks totalling over 120 hours, living in squaller, having pay withheld or being paid minimum wage with the expectation to pay for housing, and abusive relationships with superiors. Many of these workers feel unable to rely on the government for necessities such as housing or healthcare — but they also cannot trust our government to ensure safe and fair working conditions.
Surrounding this issue are the jarring and hostile migration laws and rhetoric apparent in the UK today. It feels at times as if migrant workers are ‘sub-human’, treated like a burden on our society. The true benefits of their labour and presence in this country are constantly understated, leading to harmful decisions such as Brexit that reflect the general lack of empathy for those subjected to exploitation and modern day slavery.
It has proven difficult to discuss this issue in the short space of this article, as the conditions for slavery are ultimately a cause of wider structural, social and cultural problems apparent in the UK. There are too many forces at work allowing for conditions where an individual can be enslaved for over 26 years, or people find themselves locked in underground bunkers. Key changes must be made in our government’s approach to those it claims to serve.
Enforcing a living wage that does not mean people living in poverty are also those working strenuous and exploitative shifts. Ending austerity to ensure that all people have the right to safe housing, healthcare services and trust in their country to protect them in times of hardship. Completely changing the narrative surrounding migrants and migrant labour in the UK, looking to be more inclusive, celebratory and respectful of their contributions, and ensuring they can live comfortably and without fear of violence, slavery or exploitation.
Once again, the law and society fails to protect those most vulnerable and in need of support and security.
Andersson, R. (2014). Hunter and Prey: Patrolling Clandestine Migration in the Euro-African Borderlands. Anthropological Quaterly, 84(1), pp.119 – 149.
Hall, A. (2010). ‘These People Could Be Anyone’: Fear, Contempt (and Empathy) in a British Immigration Removal Centre. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(6), pp.881 – 898.
Hönig, P. (2014). States, Borders and the State of Exception: Framing the Unauthorised Migrant in Europe. Ethnofoor, 26(1), pp.125 – 145.
Menjívar, C. and Kanstroom, D. (2014). Constructing Immigrant ‘Illegality’: Critiques, Experiences, and Responses. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.1 – 37.
W, Walters. (2002). Deportation, Expulsion, and the International Police of Aliens. Citizenship Studies, 6(3), pp. 265-292.