July 14, 2020 - 7:00am

Modern slavery reported crimes. Credit: CSJ

It Still Happens Here, a report from the Centre for Social Justice and Justice and Care, contains shocking details about the extent of modern slavery as practiced in Britain today. The authors put the number of victims at 100,000 and possibly higher.

But what exactly is “modern slavery”? According to Anti-Slavery International it is the “severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain.” At its worst, victims are held captive and forced, under threat of violence, into degrading, dangerous and unpaid labour.

But other forms of such exploitation are more subtle, work being rewarded with some (but illegally low) pay and control being exercised through debt servitude, social isolation and other manipulative tactics. As the report puts it: “many victims of modern slavery are unaware that they are being exploited… in some cases, tragically, their experience… can feel like an improvement on the situation they left behind.”

In other words, there is a spectrum of exploitation — all of it evil, but taking many different forms. The criminals responsible for the abuse have become adept at exploiting the grey areas. Indeed, it strikes me that there are parallels — some not so distant — between the exploitation described in the report and legal employment practices.

For instance, victims of modern slavery are often encouraged or compelled to make fraudulent benefit claims — money that can be extracted by the criminals and/or used to supplement poverty pay. That’s appalling, but is it a million miles away from the corporations that rely on tax credits to make their low wage business models bearable to their worst-paid workers? To be clear, the exploitation in the first case is much worse than in the second and completely illegal to boot, but isn’t there a moral continuum that connects the two?

Though we rightly condemn human trafficking, we tolerate, or celebrate, a globalised labour market in which a transient population of workers is deemed essential to the functioning of entire industries. Even if their immigration status is above board, language barriers leave many of them dependent on the goodwill of employers and middlemen — goodwill that cannot be taken for granted.

And what about the conditions in which they’re housed? I wonder how many well-paid London professionals stop to consider how the low paid workers serving them their coffee can afford to live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet?

Hand car washes are mentioned in the report as potential sites of exploitation. But whether or not the law is being kept to in each and every case, are we not at all disturbed that cheap labour is being used to reverse the process of automation? It seems extraordinary that tasks that we once entrusted to machines are now being done by human beings.

Once again, let me stress that I’m not casting doubt on modern slavery as a concept. It’s absolutely right that we have special laws aimed at stopping and punishing the worst categories of abuse. Indeed, the report makes a compelling case for improving our enforcement of those laws.

However, I also worry that our addiction to cheap, but legal, labour helps the illegal stuff to hide in plain sight.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.