‘Slavery is happening in every town and city in Britain’

The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed more than 180 years ago, so why is the practice still alive and well in Britain? Sarah Freeman reports.

The original 2,000 signature petition to support the 1806 Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill, and David and Donna Rooke, below.

It was the small details which made the latest case of modern day slavery such uncomfortable reading.

Life has never been particularly kind to Craig Kinsella. Suffering from moderate learning difficulties and with an IQ of no more than 85, he has often struggled to keep the frayed edges of his world from unravelling. Even before last summer he bore the emotional scars of his own abusive childhood and of having watched his own two children being taken into care and his marriage break down.

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Yet nothing could match the heartache inflicted on him by David and Donna Rooke and their son Jamie.

Over a six-week period, during which he lived for the most part like a dog, kept in a garage where he slept on an old piece of carpet, the three repeatedly beat their victim with whatever they could lay their hands on. Sometimes it was the handle of a pick axe or spade. Other times it was a crowbar.

The Rookes forced him to work up to 17 hours a day either cleaning the family’s ice cream van or worse, picking up dog mess. The 999 call from a concerned neighbour in Sheffield which exposed the extent of the Rookes’ inhumanity should have come as a relief. However when first asked about his treatment, the 34-year-old told officers he deserved everything he got. His crime? Stealing food, he said, from a nearby wheelie bin.

While such cases are rare, it comes just a few months after three women were freed from a south London house where they had been held for 30 years, a story which also thrust the issue of modern day slavery into the spotlight.

“Both those cases may be slightly unusual in terms of wider trends, but it does help to highlight the fact that not all modern day slavery concerns migrants,” says Anti-Slavery International’s Jakub Sobik. “Popular opinion has it that all those who find themselves the victim of slavery in this country are trafficked here and while that is true for the majority of cases it doesn’t reflect the whole story.

“In both types of cases people are targeted because of their vulnerability. In the case of human trafficking they arrive in Britain unable to speak the language and terrified of being deported. In the case of homegrown slavery people prey on the homeless and those with learning difficulties. They target day centres and offer these desperate people jobs. These are people who are incredibly easy to influence and who often don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late.”

Earlier this week the Rookes were sentenced to almost 11 years at Sheffield Crown Court, however in most cases of modern day slavery the perpetrators, operating behind a web of bureaucracy and fear, go unpunished.

“Home Secretary Theresa May recently published a draft bill on modern day slavery law and it’s good that someone is finally taking this seriously,” says Sobik.

“However, it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough when it comes to victim protection and that is key.

“At the moment many victims of modern day slavery who are brought in from abroad are treated as criminals. If discovered they are simply prosecuted and/or deported.

“Take cannabis factories. When police raid a site they arrest those who have been brought in to tend the plants. These are not the people at the top of the criminal tree, but nine times out of 10 there will be no attempt to trace those responsible for the crime of trafficking. In 2011 there were just eight prosecutions and I think that speaks volumes about our approach to this issue. It’s a crime which we are allowing to be swept under the carpet.”

Countries targeted by the traffickers range from Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania in Eastern Europe to Nigeria in North Africa and Vietnam in Southeast Asia. Around a third of cases relate to sexual exploitation while the rest are linked to forced labour, with gangmasters supplying cheap employees for, among others, the construction, catering and cleaning industries, as well as domestic help.

“In all cases, but particularly in those relating to domestic help, these people often have very little contact with the outside world and there is no support mechanism,” says Sobik.

“The problem has been compounded by changes made to the migrant domestic visa system. The law now means that domestic workers can travel to this country with their employers and stay for up to six months.

“However, crucially they are no longer allowed to change their employer while they are here.

“The changes were made in an attempt to curb immigration, but they have had unintended consequences. Now victims of human trafficking are even more likely to go under the radar.”

UK enforcement agencies estimate there are up to 10,000 gangmasters employing up to 800,000 undocumented migrant workers on criminally low wages. Similarly tens of thousands of women and children have been brought into the country for the direct purpose of sexual exploitation. No one knows whether the figure is rising, but there is agreement among those who work in the field that more needs to be done to tackle the issue.

“Last summer Boris Johnson called for a one-off amnesty for illegal migrant workers and he is absolutely right,” says Dr Mick Wilkinson, lecturer in race and social justice at the University of Hull. “It is the only way to break the power of the gangmasters, some of whom are incredible nasty pieces of work.

“At the moment we are in a state of limbo. It costs the Government £20,000 to deport one migrant worker. Financially it doesn’t add up, so instead they turn a blind eye. Yet the fear of deportation still hangs over every illegal migrant worker. An amnesty would not only allow them to get normal jobs where they pay tax, but it would help dismantle the gangmaster structure.”

Dr Wilkinson would also like to see the remit of the Gangmaster Licensing Agency, the organisation set up by Labour in the wake of the cockling disaster which saw at least 21 illegal Chinese immigrants drown while working off the coast at Morecambe, expanded.

“They do excellent work, I can’t praise them highly enough, but at the moment they can only operate in the areas of food production, agriculture and fisheries. Their hands are tied when it comes to construction, hospitality and the care sector. Exploitative gangmasters operate quite freely in these areas because they know there is nothing the GLA can do.

“In terms of sex trafficking we need to set up the kind of specialist police units which currently only operate within London in all major cities and deal with the demand factor through more closer regulation of lap dancing clubs and saunas and banning sex advertisements within newspapers.

“In the last 25 years the number of men admitting they have paid for sex has risen from one in 20 to one in 10. That says a lot about our culture.”

Yorkshire has historic ties to the issue of slavery. William Wilberforce the man credited with leading the campaign for abolition during the 19th century was a native of Hull and an institute set up in his name is now a world leader in slavery research.

However, with the word still conjuring up images of chaingangs and African plantation workers, Dr Wilkinson believes more needs to be done to make the public aware of the reality of slavery in the 21st-century.

“The slavery we talk of today is not the slavery of old,” he says. “There are no chains, there are no manacles. Every day we walk down the street we could walk past people who are psychologically trapped by slavery. It’s something which is happening in every town and every city in Britain and we can’t ignore it any longer.”

Victims held captive by fear and debt

A 2004 study by the Poppy Project of the sex industry in London found that 85 per cent of women working off streets had been trafficked into the UK (a decade earlier the figure had been nearer 10 per cent).

Many migrant workers find themselves indebted upon arrival in the UK. They can end up paying a sign-on fee – sometimes as much as £2,000 – to a gangmaster which often takes years to pay off.

While some gangmasters make sure they are being seen to pay the minimum wage, they often apply a range of illegal deductions such as training or transport to work. In one reported case a woman started out with £149 as her net wage. After deductions she was left with just £19.

According to research carried out by Dr Wilkinson many are required to work 12 and 16 hour shifts at a moment’s notice. In one 
case a woman told how 
she arrived in Hull and in her first week she was driven over to Barnsley where 
she worked a night shift of eight hours. She then was told to sleep in the car for two hours before being 
made to get up and 
work an eight-hour 
morning shift.

Last year more than 1,000 people were referred to UK authorities as potential victims of slavery.

However, according to a recent report by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG) the UK’s criminal justice system is losing the fight against human trafficking. Despite several landmark cases which have attracted much media publicity, the number of prosecutions remains low.