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NGOs and Government: Allies in the Fight against Modern Slavery in the UK

How can the government work alongside organisations in other sectors, including all groups and individuals in British society, to shape the national approach to modern slavery? This post provides a discussion of why this multifaceted strategy is the most effective way forward.

Portugal Street, Holborn, London.

Holborn and Russell Square are home to two of the largest and most popular soup kitchens in London; they are also well-known trafficking hubs. Many of these areas exist in the UK, where, as the photographer Amy Romer investigates, traffickers select the most vulnerable out from areas where the homeless and unemployed congregate. Although unremarkable scenes at first glance, these pictures undoubtedly represent the hidden nature of slavery. Source: The Dark Figure by Amy Romer

Modern Slavery is not a new threat facing the UK, but indeed an ancient, entangled and evolving issue that we have come to accept as a ‘given’ in today’s society. And yet in the same breath we are shocked by the number and forms of slavery revealed to be entrapped in British culture and supply chains. We are both regularly apathetic and yet indignant at the prevalence and impact of the issue. For an interesting contrast, according to the estimate from the Global Slavery Index (GSI) (1), there are more modern slavery victims in the UK than there are NHS doctors in England (2). So, in theory, if every modern slavery survivor received the treatment they deserve from state healthcare, there may possibly be more patients than doctors. Moreover, 136,000 is still a modest figure given the complex and numerous barriers concealing many unreported cases of trafficking and the discrepancies in methods used for measuring. Clearly this is a mainstream problem, but one that persists by safety in inconspicuous or uninviting corners, lost in the business of daily routines for the ‘many’. It’s all too easy to dismiss the problem when it can hide behind the new normal of modern life.

This blog post looks at a couple of important examples of efforts from both the UK government and NGOs to tackle slavery, and reasons that several types of both are needed to have any significant impact on the rising trend of victims in the UK. It should be noted this discussion merely scratches the surface of legislation and action taken to address slavery in the UK. There is no one entity, strategy or program that can claim to be effective at reducing cases on its own. This is a fact which arguably should be attributed to the deep and far-reaching roots of slavery that are tied up in the functioning of life as we know (or decide to know) it.

Taking a look at the process and impact of anti-slavery legislation in the UK:

Photo: Protest outside of the Parliament demanding protections for overseas domestic workers.

Source: Anti Slavery International

This is an example of how the Modern Slavery Act has been a welcomed step forward in uniting action against slavery and trafficking, however there is still significant concern from human rights groups about the effectiveness of the Act in fulfilling its potential to help survivors. Further analysis of the act by Anti Slavery International can be read here.

As part of an international renewed incentive to tackle modern slavery in recent years, the UK has strengthened its stance, particularly with the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. This Act has largely been regarded by the global anti-trafficking community as a positive and relatively successful development. One way to observe this success is through an independent review of the Act, which highlights the importance of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner established in 2015. (3)

Findings suggest introducing an independent Commissioner has been significant in aligning the UK’s response to modern slavery with best practice, improving the national approach to tackling offences and assisting identifying victims. However, there is consensus among stakeholders that to be more effective the Commissioner’s function must be allowed to encourage accountability, transparency and cooperation. Currently many agree this function is limited and restrained by the Government. For example, it is noted that a key process assessing the Commissioner’s effectiveness is carried out by Home Office officials. Many would argue that this process being in the hands of the Home Office defeats the purpose of the Commissioner to be able to critically evaluate and advise on government action against slavery. Any new initiative which does not have effective processes to ensure accountability will be less likely to achieve the desired results.

It could be suggested that an initiative should involve multiple entities operating within distinct channels in order to be the most beneficial in ensuring accountability and a balanced agenda. In practice this initiative could look like private monitoring bodies reporting on government activities or service provision for survivors being composed of both government departments and private organisations that share common objectives with the government.

In contrast, several government initiatives are set up to take on different parts of the anti-trafficking strategy but share staff, resources, budgets and monitoring and evaluation systems. This system may make action sluggish with lengthy operative and communication processes and opportunities for information sharing and transparency may become less formal and more haphazard. However, this is closer to the UK’s current system. Therefore, it is important we advocate for establishing a network of government and independent groups which includes monitoring bodies and businesses. This network would still provide opportunities for partnerships that each serve a specific purpose, but avoid the government’s resources, motivation and application of legislation being stretched too thin.

However, the Commissioner does still facilitate successful cooperation between government agencies and other sectors and interest groups. This facilitation can allow for greater efficiency through joined up services while still ensuring greater accountability in the systems put in place to form the plan for preventing and tackling slavery. Where slavery permeates each branch of society, so must we use a strategy that incorporates government, the public sector and consumers.

Clearly, then, in order to develop a strategy that tackles slavery at every stage of the process, there must be overlap with monitoring, service provisio