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Cost of living likely to make people more vulnerable to modern slavery

On Anti-Slavery Day, prof Alex Balch warns of cost of living crisis increasing vulnerability to modern slavery.

Published: 17th October 2022

Today is Anti-Slavery Day. A day created to raise awareness about and call on the governments, organisations, businesses and general public into action to address it.

Sadly, we still have to mark Anti-Slavery Day, as forms of exploitation that fall under the umbrella term of modern slavery, such as human trafficking, forced labour or exploitation for criminal activities, is not going away. In fact, the numbers of people referred as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK rise year on year.

Last year, in 2021, more than 12,000 people were referred to the UK authorities. Given that this issue tends to be underestimated because of its hidden nature, coupled with the identification and referral system is completely straightforward to access, the potential scale of the issue looks to be as grim as it is serious.

What is even more alarming, is that we are now facing a cost of living crisis that will likely make more people more vulnerable to exploitation.

There is plenty of strong evidence pointing to links between precarity and modern slavery. Poverty, lack of education, lack of job opportunities, lack of support in vulnerable moments or exclusion from the labour market, all these factors contribute to creating situations of vulnerability, exposing people to sometimes no-win choices to provide for their families, and at the same time providing opportunities for some people to exploit others.

Evidence also points to situations of crises causing more vulnerability to modern slavery. For example, wars or natural disasters often force people to flee and migrate without legal protections enjoyed during peaceful times, creating good ground for exploitation and trafficking. Similarly, a large body of evidence pointing to the Covid-19 pandemic increasing vulnerability to exploitation both for adults and children across the world.

Modern slavery in Britain works in a similar way in that there are factors and conditions that contribute to people’s increased vulnerability, and these are often similar: poverty, exclusion, lack of support and access to that support. Our recent research (carried out by St. Mary’s University Twickenham and partners) on British nationals exploited in modern slavery found that the lack of support from authorities on housing, economic situation, mental health or education for children creates a vacuum, that criminal gangs can and often do exploit to recruit children into their ranks to and force them to traffic drugs in county lines.

This Anti-Slavery Day, we’re looking ahead to the winter with serious concern. There are already factors making the situation worse than usual. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to challenging economic conditions and left people struggling; Brexit, which for example increased homelessness amongst EU nationals and arguablyincreased risks by switching away from EU nationals to special visa schemes in agriculture and care; the war in Ukraine, which brings new risks of trafficking and exploitation.

Now, the cost of living crisis is bound to add yet another extra layer of adversity that is likely to increase people’s precarity and vulnerability.

When one in five people live in poverty in the UK already, and with the Resolution Foundation estimating that absolute poverty will rise in 2022/23 by 1.3 million, including half a million children, people across the country are facing costs that might put many on the brink.

With all this knowledge, the Government has a responsibility to act and look at comprehensive prevention strategies to protect people across the UK from being exploited.

As our research on modern slavery prevention recommends, the Government needs to implement a ‘whole systems’ approach to preventing modern slavery, informed by people with lived experience of modern slavery. An approach that can address the factors contributing to people’s increased vulnerability, including poverty, exclusion and lack of support, so that we can intervene before harm occurs.

If we are to ensure people are protected, we need to identify those who are at risk or who are already being exploited as early possible, and to be ready to support them and their recovery. That means investing in social services so they can cope supporting additional people facing greater levels of need due to the current situation. We need to invest in education and child protection services to make sure children are at schools instead of being exploited by criminal gangs. We need to make sure our first responders and frontline services, from doctors, nurses and teachers to the police, are well equipped to recognise the signs of exploitation and take effective action.

We know that a crisis is coming and that it will likely make more people vulnerable to modern slavery. The Government should act to minimise its impact on children and adults who might be exploited because of it.

Prof Alex Balch is s a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and Director of Research at the Modern Slavery PEC.