The U.K.’s domestic slavery shame

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

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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