The U.K.’s domestic slavery shame

Recent high-profile cases of domestic bondage are just the tip of a disturbing social trend

by Leah McLaren

Dominic Lipinski/PA

In late november, London’s Metropolitan Police announced the rescue of three women allegedly held as slaves in a south London house for as long as 30 years in what were described as “horrific conditions.” Their elderly accused captors, Aravindan Balakrishnan, 73, and his wife, Chandra, 67, were arrested and later released on bail, despite the magnitude of their alleged crimes. The three women—a Malaysian, 69, an Irishwoman, 57, and a Briton, 30, who is said to have been held captive for her entire life—were described by the police as “highly traumatized” after decades of confinement with “invisible handcuffs.” The women are thought to be members of a Maoist sect led by Balakrishnan, also known as Comrade Bala—but they also appear to be victims of a more disturbing social trend: the alarming rise of modern-day slavery in contemporary Britain.

While several isolated and extreme cases of domestic slavery have recently come to light in the U.K., the problem of enforced servitude also extends to migrant workers, refugees and the many victims of human trafficking, who are, according to the government, entering the country every day.

Earlier this year in Bedfordshire, two members of the notorious Connors family were jailed for five and eight years, respectively, after being convicted on charges of servitude, compulsory labour and abuse. The family recruited poor, addicted and homeless men from soup kitchens and shelters with promises of paid work and lodgings. The men were then forced to work for free in the trailer park where the Connors lived. The men were abused and threatened if they tried to escape. Many ran away, but a few were so degraded and broken, they simply lacked the courage to leave.

This, of course, is precisely how modern-day slavery works: Its victims are bound, not by actual chains, but by the bonds of their own extreme vulnerability—whether caused by addiction, poverty, youth or unstable immigration status.

Last week, the U.K.’s home secretary, Theresa May, announced that the Tory-led government is cracking down on modern-day slavery by introducing new legislative measures targeting organized-crime rings. The Modern Slavery Bill will consolidate into a single act offences used for prosecution of enslavement, meaning that criminals with a history of human trafficking can be more effectively tracked down and punished. A higher maximum sentence of up to life in prison for traffickers is being proposed, as well as measures that will make it illegal for those convicted of trafficking to return to work as “gangmasters” (the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is an actual agency in the U.K. that regulates the supply of migrant workers in the agricultural and fishing industries).

MP Frank Field, chairman of the slavery bill’s review board, said last week that cases such as those in Bedfordshire and south London were the tip of the iceberg. “We’ve had this example of domestic slavery, but people are being imported to work, almost for nothing, in industry. We’ve got begging gangs being developed, with people being imported. And, of course, we’ve got the whole question of how children are being imported to work.”

While the cases of domestic slavery remain relatively isolated, organized slavery seems to be rising. According to a 2012 report by the U.K. Human Trafficking Centre, there were 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking in the U.K. last year, up nine per cent from the previous year (“potential” because their cases are currently being reviewed by the Home Office). A quarter of these potential victims were children. The top five nationalities reported were Romanian, Polish, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Hungarian.

There has been a significant increase in trafficking cases from Eastern European countries such as Albania, Lithuania and Poland since 2011—perhaps not surprising, considering these are EU member states, which means their citizens can freely enter and reside in the U.K. According to the report, some trafficking victims are lured with promises of a better life, then forced into anything from domestic and industrial labour to prostitution and farming cannabis. Others are taken in by so-called “debt bonds,” in which the victim must pay off money owed by working for free in the U.K. There have also been cases of large-scale begging rings or benefit fraud, in which migrants are signed up to collect benefits they are forced to hand over to their captors, leaving them destitute and trapped.

But as David Hanson, the Labour Party shadow minister for immigration, recently told the BBC, the real problem is that no one knows how deep the scope of the problem is. It’s simply impossible to determine how many modern-day slaves are being forcibly held and abused behind closed doors in Britain. The problem, of course, is particularly alarming where minors are concerned.

“The government also needs to wake up to the fact that 60 per cent of trafficked children simply go missing again in the U.K. after they’ve come to the attention of the authorities,” said Hanson. “It should be a source of shame.”




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The U.K.’s domestic slavery shame

  1. They went shopping, they watched TV……….they weren’t captive.

    • You really don’t understand the idea of invisible chains do you?
      When you’re reliant psychologically as well as physically on someone else, leaving isn’t an option. Battered wives, cult members, Stockholm syndrome etc. are all part of the same psychological issues regarding bonding with an abuser.
      It takes a lot to break with everything you’ve ever known, scares you to your very core or is the only thing that protects you from the world.
      Glib one liners illustrate a distinct lack of understanding or empathy.

      • Another fantasy people indulge in.

        Life is not a picnic, and you have to be tough to survive.

        • Not everyone has had the luck you or I have had.

          • You make your own luck.

          • Sometimes, other times you are just plum out of it.
            I was born to loving parents in a good place at a good time and for that I’m thankful… others weren’t as fortunate and they had nothing to do with it.

          • No, we weren’t.

        • Then let me tell you how the traffickers deal with girls whom they traffik. This is from someone who runs a recuperation unit for Moldovan girls trafficked into Turkey, Russia and the Middle East to work in the sex industry.
          First of all the girl is brutally gang raped. Repeatedly. She is given just enough food to survive. She will be beaten and raped again and again. This guy then sells her onto another guy.
          He treats her a little better, gives her a little bit more food, but she is still beaten and gang raped. Repeatedly. This guy then sells her on to a third trafficker.
          He buys her nice clothes, a mobile phone and treats her well. But she is expected to work for him. By that time the girl is so grateful that she no longer is being mistreated she will do anything for this guy.
          You tough enough to withstand this? If you are, then you’d be dead. Because if you show too much spirit then you’re disposable and too much trouble.
          No life isn’t a picnic, but if you haven’t understood that you are very lucky to have the freedom you do, then you need to take a long hard look at yourself and realise that life ain’t kind to lots of people.

          • I believe I just said this. A couple of times actually.

          • Really? I must have been reading someone else’s comments or you use the English language in a completely different way to everyone else I know…..

          • Nah….you were just showing off as a knight in shining armour, and missed the fact that others know what life is like.

          • Then if you know what life is like, as one poster above says, you lack that vital ingredient, empathy. Also your use of the word “captive” in your first post shows you don’t understand the complexities of psychological control. Anyhow, you carry on in your fantasy world where you use words to mean whatever you like…. Makes real communication difficult though….

          • None of your emotional rants have anything to do with the matter at hand….3 perfectly healthy women with a TV and the freedom to go shopping….are not slaves.

            Women who are trafficked in the slave trade have a real problem …that they’d gladly exchange with these 3.

            Hysteria is not ‘empathy’….it’s just hysteria. And hysteria and a toonie will buy you a coffee.

            Slavery has gone on for thousands of years….even though it sounds like you’ve just discovered it.

            If you want to do something to help women being trafficked, fine….do so. But don’t get all sanctimonious about it.

            Others have been dealing with it for a lot longer than you have.

          • You are still using language to mean other things to what everybody else does. I don’t recognise “hysterical” or “sanctimonious” as descriptive of what I said. Neither did I mention the case of the three women as being “slavery”, you have assumed that I think it is. That is an extremely complex case and although it was first mooted as “slavery” it is a lot more involved than that. Of course, as it would appear you know (apparently being an expert in this area), you don’t have to be “trafficked” to be a “slave” and it is still possible those women were effectively enslaved. We will have to wait and see as further information comes to light.
            And finally, thank you for the history lesson. I never knew that slavery had being going on for thousands of years! Gosh! That was a revelation! Talking of being sanctimonious….

          • Empathy is the basis of all morality.

            However if you indulge in empathy for everyone on the planet with a sad story, you’ll be a basket case and of no use to anyone.

            Stop weeping, and do something more useful than attacking a poster in Canada.

          • Well…..
            As the article was criticising the state of play in the UK, perhaps you should have taken note of your own advice and not posted in the first place ;-)
            Sure empathy, if it leads to just feeling sorry for people, will end up with you as a basket case. However if it leads to anger and then action, then it has some value.
            As to doing something, you assume that I know what little I know because I sit around feeling sorry for people? Another wrong assumption. You are not the only one doing something about this….

  2. The estimates of the amount of genuine cases are almost certainly just pulled out of the air and hugely exaggerated, whether it involves domestic labour, farm work, construction, and particularly prostitution. Canadian media seem to be quite gullible in easily believing these fictional numbers without questioning them the way that less naïve media will do in other similar countries such as Australia and Britain. Remember how a certain Canadian TV host and author had his nonsense about eastern Europe taken seriously about ten or twelve years ago? It was all remarkably similar to the “white slavery” hysteria of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
    http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/oct/20/government-trafficking-enquiry-fails
    http://www.walnet.org/csis/news/world_2003/spectator-030405.html
    http://www.walnet.org/csis/papers/doezema-loose.html

    • And on the other side of the coin nobody wanted to believe when women started disappearing from the streets of Vancouver and yet they did and they were being violently raped, murdered and fed to pigs.
      http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Missing+Women+Inquiry+condemned+failure+human+rights+groups/7571576/story.html

      And there could be another in the making too.
      http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/breakingnews/Provinces-list-of-missing-or-murdered-down-to-28-people-162365056.html?device=mobile

      Or you can just dismiss this as nonsense too.

    • The 2,255 figure from UKHTC that they quote is the number that were referred to the National Referral Mechanism in the UK. This is the process where all people suspected of being trafficked go into whilst their status and so on are considered. Therefore the figure of 2,255 is only those who have been potentially identified. 778 were definitely identified as victims of trafficking. This doesn’t mean the others weren’t victims, some refuse assistance (often because of fear of their traffickers). I would suggest that this is the tip of the iceberg rather than an inflation of the figures. Recently 80+ people were released from forced labour in the Wisbech area in the UK and ten people have been charged with various offences, several of whom are held on remand. I personally have seen people being traded on the streets here in Peterborough and have visited some of the places where these people live and talked to them about their experiences and how it all works. It isn’t a fantasy. It is very real and very, very nasty.

  3. Too bad this is just another media firestorm of bullshit.
    The facts don’t come close to supporting the story or the headline.
    Fail.

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