Slavery is still very much alive as this harrowing example proves
There are more slaves today than there were at any other point in human history. In isolation, this may seem a strange fact. However, as a recent incident proves, it is an undeniably prevalent problem.
Authorities have rescued a man who is believed to have lived as a slave in a six-foot shed for 40 years. The 58-year-old British man was living in squalid conditions and was found during a dawn raid on Wednesday following a call to a confidential helpline.
A 79-year-old man - a resident at the home in Carlisle, Cumbria - was arrested on suspicion of modern slavery offences. Meanwhile, the victim was taken for psychological assessment. Police have reason to believe the man may have worked without pay since he was a teenager.
"The information that was given to us was that he had been kept in the shed for a period of 40 years,” Martin Plimmer of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) told the BBC.
“When we found him he was like a rabbit in headlights and very confused … He was just in the clothes he stood up in and where he was sleeping in the shed there was just a soiled duvet on the floor. There was no heating and it was very cold. It was conditions that no human being should live in.”
“He has been traumatised for such a length of time that it will be a slow process to win back his trust,” Plimmer said. “In my long career I’ve never come across anyone who has been held as a slave potentially for 40 years and this, I think, could be the longest period of captivity that we have dealt with … It’s an extremely sad and serious case.”
In a statement, the GLAA stated: “The operation has been supported by specialist officers from the National Crime Agency, the Cumbria Housing Department who are investigating possible health and safety breaches, and officers from Cumbria police.”
It’s unclear whether the man ever made an attempt to escape. However, in many cases of modern slavery, vulnerable individuals are confused or coerced into compliance. Furthermore, as an unknown quantity, it is difficult to discuss the scale of the problem with any certainty.
Global estimates for victims of slavery stand anywhere between 20 and 70 million, based on the calculation used to create the estimate and what one counts as slavery. In fact, while the British government estimated in 2013 that there were around 13,000 victims of forced labour, sex trafficking and domestic servitude in UK, the 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates that the figure is closer to 136,000. Alarmingly, this means that 1 in 500 people in Britain were trapped in slavery in 2016.
“This report reinforces that we are dealing with an evolving threat,” said Tom Dowdall of the National Crime Agency (NCA). “The figures in this report are not based on UK statistics, but clearly this highlights the seriousness of this crime,” said a spokesperson for Britain’s Home Office.
For the authorities, there are formidable barriers to break down and enormous obstacles to overcome. Domestic servitude, for instance, may be difficult to spot and in some cases, cultural differences mean that the agencies involved must tread a very careful line during their investigations. In others, the signs that someone is a victim of slavery are all too clear.
“The number is much bigger than previous estimates because the discussion is evolving and new forms of slavery are emerging,” stated Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for Anti-Slavery International, in regards to the updated estimate. “We are still learning about the hidden phenomenon but this new figure indicates the scale of modern slavery.”
Forced labour can also be difficult to detect but is particularly prevalent in British construction sites, factories, car washes, farms and nail bars. In 2011, a slavery ring was uncovered at a traveller site in Bedfordshire.
An astonishing 24 victims, one as young as 17 and another who had been enslaved by the family for 15 years, were kept in dirty and inhumane conditions including inside dog kennels and horse boxes. Their captors targeted soup kitchens and hostels when looking for new recruits - highlighting the necessity of vulnerability in their victims.
There are also growing concerns around child exploitation in British gangs as more minors are being used to transport drugs from urban cores to rural areas in a phenomenon known as “county lines”. However, as highlighted in a harrowing account of one of the victims, sex trafficking in the UK is alarmingly common.
Often, foreign victims are abducted by traffickers from their own country - which helps validate threats involving their families. However, the abuse they then receive, on British soil, is indiscriminate.
Of course, that the picture is this bleak in such a developed country is a bad sign when it comes to the developing world. Here, where there is often famine and far fewer opportunities, there are many more individuals who are at risk.
Regardless of where the exploitation happens or who the victim is, slavery in the 21st century is a damning indictment on modern society. We can but hope that one day, people will no longer be seen as a commodity.
The Modern Slavery helpline 0800 0121 700 is open 24 hours a day.
If you think a child is in danger of trafficking, contact the NSPCC's on 0808 8005 000 (UK) or Child Help at 1800 422 4453 (US)