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Lucy Maule: "Modern slavery" does exist in Britain - and it's a lot more serious than work experience

Maule LucyLucy Maule is a Policy Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice.

Through its current investigation into slavery and human trafficking, the Centre for Social Justice keeps a keen eye on the daily headlines for any mention of the enslavement and exploitation of individuals. So when our email alerts were filled with references to slavery on last Tuesday morning, we thought we must have missed something big. How very wrong this was. The High Court ruling that rejected claims that two individuals – Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson – had been subjected to "modern slavery" and "forced labour" by being required to complete work experience in retail outlets as part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) work placement programme is both refreshing in that it was rejected, and depressing that it reached the High Court in the first place.

The reality is that forced labour does indeed take place in Britain, but not as Cait and Jamieson understand it. The CSJ has travelled all over the country to meet individuals who have been trafficked into the most horrendous forms of abuse, exploitation and slavery in Britain and hear from those who are doing their best, with limited resources, to support and rehabilitate these true victims of the slave trade that still blights our society. These faceless, voiceless people are the real victims of slavery in Britain. The CSJ is committed to reviewing the response to this problem, and is investigating the role of the police, the Government, the public, and the voluntary and business sectors in tackling this current tragedy.

The DWP’s Work Programme encourages the jobless to take part in skill-building, aiming to prepare individuals to re-enter the world of work fully equipped to take on all that it entails. According to the DWP, this scheme has already increased the chances of finding paid work by 16 per cent. To imagine that this is forced labour or slavery is to grossly misrepresent the meaning of the phrases.

Let us be clear. Forced labour is not, as Reilly’s barrister described it, "unpaid, menial work". Forced labour is the woman from Nigeria forcibly moved to Britain, and trapped inside a large house in a leafy part of London. With her passport seized by her "employer" (for which read "master"), she is forced to work all hours of the day, sleep on the kitchen floor and eat only scraps of leftover food. Forced labour is the British man, homeless and vulnerable, who is approached at a soup kitchen and offered a job in construction, only to find himself trapped on a travellers’ site in rural England, threatened with violence if he tries to leave and made to work up to 19 hours a day with no pay and constant, crippling fear hanging over him. Slavery is the nine-year-old girl brought from Pakistan and forced to live in the cellar of a house in the North of England. Beaten, raped and forced into domestic service, this child had all liberty and choice removed from her.

Stacking shelves in a shop in order to access state-funded benefits is not slavery. A voluntary programme where workers benefit from experience is not forced labour. If Cait Reilly or Jamieson Wilson were to come face-to-face with someone who has been enslaved in Britain they would surely feel ashamed at attempting to put themselves in the same category. Let us not waste judges’ time with these ridiculous claims – let us bring genuine injustice before their eyes. It is all too easy for us to believe that slavery ended 200 years ago through the work of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and to assume that the job is therefore done. This could not be further from the truth. While one person still suffers at the hands of those who seek to profit or gain from their vulnerability, there is still much more work to be done.

The CSJ will be setting out its plans in the coming months for the improvement of Britain’s response to slavery and human trafficking.


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