How has COVID-19 Increased Modern Slavery in the UK?

Just before Christmas 2021, the Adexon team published an article to the old Adexon website exploring Modern Slavery in the UK, particularly in the Construction Industry.


Unfortunately, however, COVID-19 and the worldwide pandemic has not only allowed for modern slavery to continue but also helped to increase the number of people becoming enslaved.


‘For many of us, we believe slavery was abolished with the William Wilberforce movement. However, for a staggering 46 million people, slavery is not a historical fact.
It is a present reality.’[1]

After the Morecambe Bay tragedy, in which at least 21 illegal immigrant labourers were killed while collecting cockles on Morecombe Bay, there were multiple acts formed and implemented by the Government to stop the spread of illegal labour and the inhumane conditions enslaved people were living in.


This included the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 and the formation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, renamed to the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA).


A resulting Gangmasters license was introduced, which was designed to ensure that workers procured by the gangmaster receive

  • a written contract

  • the national minimum wage

  • decent accommodation

  • safe and legal transport and working conditions, and

  • are treated fairly and equally.


Alongside this, the Modern Slavery Act was introduced and was implemented on 29th October 2015, whose aim was to consolidate ‘current slavery and human trafficking offences, and introduce new preventive measures, support systems and a regulatory body.’[2]


It was hoped that these legislative changes would save thousands of lives from enslavement.

It seems however that any progress has been tarnished by the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic.[3]

A dark background with spots of light, with a rainy chain link in the foreground.


Speaking on ITV News in the summer of 2020, Rob Jones, Director of Threat Leadership for the National Crime Agency, explained

‘” Many of the criminals saw COVID-19 as an opportunity, we know they changed their exploitation model, we are working hard to understand where victims have been moved to and the areas they have been displaced to.”’[4]

The increase of NRM referrals[5] supports this and has a demonstrable increase throughout the pandemic, from 2014 onwards.


A bar graph that shows the continual increase of enslavement figures from 2014- present.

This increase continues despite well published fears that the National Referral Mechanism, NRM, is not fit for purpose, and results in underreporting of actual enslavement figures.


‘As ever these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. In order to be referred to the NRM and, therefore, feature in the statistics, adult victims need to give their consent.
Many do not.’[6]

The effects of the pandemic on modern slavery were also investigated by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre, also known as the Modern Slavery PEC, and they created a brief to outline their findings to business leaders and UK policy makers.


The Modern Slavery PEC found that

  • Drivers of modern slavery, such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment have increased vulnerability to modern slavery across the world and the UK.

  • Vulnerability has increased to a greater degree in low- and middle-income countries, and for already vulnerable groups such as children, migrant and informal workers, and women and girls.

  • Evidence suggests that traffickers adapted their methods during the pandemic; increased online recruitment and exploitation was a common theme.

  • The identification of victims appears to have been affected, with fewer adults identified, but marked increase in ‘county lines’ referrals, mostly involving UK national children.

  • Government mandated lockdowns had the most significant direct and indirect impacts for modern slavery.[7]


The Modern Slavery PEC also suggest that the ‘economic impact of the pandemic is likely to increase vulnerability to modern slavery in the short term (e.g. the next one-three years), in particular in low- and middle-income countries.’[8]


This brings about the possibility that the victim toll of modern slavery will continue to increase unabated for the next 3-years.


Emergency warning showing a coronavirus outbreak update.


So, what can we do to help?

As business owners, or simple consumers, we can all help make a difference, to help bring an end to modern slavery at a local community level.


The first step to this process will be increasing your watchfulness to this key issue.


It may go against our English sensibilities, but increased community awareness is a huge precursor to catching gang leaders and rescuing those enduring a life of slavery.


Common signs that an individual could be enslaved are

  1. Evidence of a workplace being used for accommodation

  2. Workers are distrustful of authorities

  3. Workers look uneasy, unkempt, or malnourished

  4. Signs of psychological trauma

  5. Untreated injuries

  6. Evidence of control over movement (being picked up and dropped off in groups)

  7. Signs of substance misuse

  8. Workers don’t know work or home addresses.[9]


If you have any suspicions, you can then use the Modern Slavery Helpline[10] or use the Unseen app[11] to report your concerns confidentially.

The Unseen app logo and a poster for the Modern Slavery Helpline with a phone number.







You can also start to examine your most used businesses and support the businesses that routinely check their supply chain to ensure it is free from modern slavery, both domestic and abroad.


To find ethical suppliers

  • Use Ethical Consumer website, an independent company that gives information to consumers to allow them to make ethical decisions.

  • Use the Fashion Transparency Index website, who rank the top 250 fashion retailers, to find ethical sources.

  • Read companies Modern Slavery policies, which should be easily accessible on their website.

  • Download the Good On You app to find ethical options.

  • Use local shops with the shortest supply chain.

  • Look for brands that allow unions, as they will help workers to uphold their rights.

  • Shop second-hand or pre-loved.

As with environmental issues, business owners and consumers hold the power to halt the progress of modern slavery across the world and the UK.


By making informed choices, reporting behaviour that is worrying, and supporting ethical companies, we can work together to stop money being funnelled through organisations that use slavery and spend our pound with ethical suppliers who align with our values.


Maybe then the spread of modern slavery can be halted.


‘You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say that you did not know.’
William Wiberforce

___________________________________________________________________________ [1] Quote from Kate Garbers from TEDx Exeter, ‘Modern Slavery, Hidden in Plain Sight,’ from 01/06/2028, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYQdZWj5G0g>

[2] Ecovadis.com, ‘What is the UK Modern Slavery Act?’ <https://ecovadis.com/glossary/uk-modern-slavery-act/#:~:text=The%20UK%20Modern%20Slavery%20Act%20is%20one%20of%20the%20most,systems%20and%20a%20regulatory%20body>

[3] Image from Pexels.com, courtesy of Joey Kyber

[4] Quote from Rob Jones, speaking on ITV News on 13/07/2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9esn6fJ2JE>

[5] Figure 1 taken from Home Office statistics, ‘Official Statistics, Modern Slavery: National Referral Mechanism and Duty to Notify statistics UK, Quarter 4 2021 – October to December,’ published 03/03/2022 <https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/modern-slavery-national-referral-mechanism-and-duty-to-notify-statistics-uk-quarter-4-2021-october-to-december/modern-slavery-national-referral-mechanism-and-duty-to-notify-statistics-uk-quarter-4-2021-october-to-december>

[6] Justice & Care, ‘Slavery in the Pandemic: Part 2,’ <https://justiceandcare.org/slavery-in-the-pandemic/> 10/05/2022

[7] Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre, ‘Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery,’ policy brief by Olivia Hesketh and Owain Johnstone, published November 2021, page 1.

[8] Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre, ‘Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery,’ published 17/11/2021, <https://modernslaverypec.org/resources/covid-modern-slavery#:~:text=The%20pandemic%20has%20increased%20vulnerability,migrant%20workers%2C%20women%20and%20girls.>

[9] Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, ‘8 signs of modern slavery,’ published 07/03/2019, <https://www.cieh.org/ehn/public-health-and-protection/2019/march/8-signs-of-modern-slavery/>

[10] Modern Slaver helpline image from Nottinghamshire Police, ‘Modern day slavery helpline,’ <https://www.nottinghamshire.police.uk/site-page/modern-day-slavery-helpline>

[11] Unseen app image from Google Play, ‘Unseen,’ <https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.unseen.unseenApp&hl=en_GB&gl=US> 10.05.2022

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