I’ve always found the term ‘modern slavery’ to be a contradictory one. The word ‘slavery’ conjures up visceral images of oppression and innate human suffering that seem somehow associated with the past; a time when we were less civilised, less socially aware. So, one asks, how does this word, so laden with rampant brutality and associated historical connotations, still hold relevance today?

We’ve all seen the images of refugees, lost at sea in a desperate attempt to escape the economic or political hardships of their homeland. Many of us have been shocked by the distressing accounts of young children who are ruthlessly coerced into running drugs across county lines. Such stories reoccur again and again in the mass media and yet despite this, modern slavery remains a misunderstood and often overlooked crime. Perpetrators prey on the vulnerable and the desperate, exerting a cycle of fear and financial control that can seem impossible to escape from.

Poster designed to raise awareness of modern slavery in the community, by year 7 and 8 students from Bexhill Academy’

I quickly fell in love with Hastings for its glorious seaside proximity and quirky bohemian almost-Brighton-but-less-hipster vibe, after moving down from London two years ago. However, there is a darker reality to this burgeoning coastal town, one rife with poverty and all the hardship this inevitably evokes. After volunteering at a local soup kitchen in Hastings town centre, it became apparent that the issue of modern slavery is very much a part of day-to-day life here, with the vulnerable and financially burdened being most at risk. It would be naïve to suggest that this crime doesn’t exist in London, but Hastings’ geographical locality to Dover, coupled with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK, seems to render it especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.

Local action 

Keen to understand this vital issue in more depth, I got in contact with Laurie Church, a Modern Slavery Community Coordinator for the non-profit organisation Stop the Traffik. The charity aims to raise awareness and systematically disrupt human trafficking from within the community. Dedicated to the cause and highly knowledgeable, Laurie explained her role to me in more detail: “I’m in charge of integrating various, relevant groups to address the issue of modern slavery. Our overarching aim is to enhance public awareness on the ground, within a global context, as well as building up resilience in local communities. I believe everyone has a part to play in helping to break the cycle of this devastating crime.”

Stop the Traffik also operates as a part of the multi-agency task force Discovery, based in Hastings. Discovery aims to safeguard and prioritise the needs of those affected by modern slavery, in all its many forms. Laurie invited me to meet some of the members of the Discovery team to see how they work first hand. Police Officers Amanda Snashall, Mark Charlton and Les Golding work as part of the Police Intelligence branch at Discovery. Enthusiastic to talk to me, DC Amanda Snashall summarised the group’s role: “We’re here to investigate any intelligence sent in by members of the public, or anyone concerned about a potential victim of modern slavery. We investigate all relevant leads and build up a case, with the aim of pursuing the offenders and assisting their victims. By working alongside a variety of other governmental and non-governmental bodies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and The Salvation Army, we can help advocate and give advice from a legal perspective.”

Be aware… If you go to a car wash and there are five people cleaning your car, there’s a good chance they’re not being paid minimum wage

Snashall went on to explain how modern slavery is a notoriously difficult area to address, with a frustratingly low rate of convictions in the UK: “There’s often a huge amount of shame and lack of awareness on the part of the victims, many of whom may have come to the UK with the promise of a job and a new life, only to find themselves working well below minimum wage, in a country they know nothing about. How can they speak up for themselves when their only point of contact is the human trafficker, who has taken away all of their official documents and tells them they’ll be beaten or worse if they try and escape? Discovery seeks to develop a relationship of trust with victims, to build a genuine sense of rapport and empower them to speak out. We always work with the aim of convicting perpetrators, but this isn’t the only way to address things. Sometimes making victims aware of their rights and offering them an alternative escape route out can help escalate the systematic disruption of the framework of organised crime significantly.”

The team told me how the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, by the then Home Secretary Theresa May, helped formally recognise slavery for the first time in the UK. May’s bill solidified a number of acts under one banner and, perhaps most crucially, acknowledged victims and their right to a defence, instead of simply prosecuting them for any offences committed, whilst under exploitation. It’s widely conceded that the act is far from perfect, but it’s certainly helped bring this imperative issue to the fore, both socially and politically. The bill has also enabled professionals to quantify modern slavery, within a legally recognised context.

Work to be done

However, Laurie and her colleagues remain very much aware of the monumental amount of work that still needs to be done: “People are one of the biggest commodities after the drugs trade. It’s highly profitable and can be incredibly hard to regulate, especially given advances in technology online. We’ve had cases where women from China have been groomed via the internet into coming to the UK, only to then be forced into prostitution upon their arrival. Victims of modern slavery can be young or old, of any gender, sexual orientation or cultural background – the traffickers don’t discriminate. By working as part of a collective, we can help address the needs of the victims from a multi-dimensional approach, but we have to be realistic too; sometimes simply ‘saving’ someone isn’t the answer, no matter how much we’d like it to be. We remain hopeful though. The UK is at the forefront of tackling modern slavery, amongst the top five countries worldwide and it’s our duty to build on this accordingly for the future.”

I concluded my visit to Discovery HQ by asking what the public can do, if they think someone’s being used for slave labour. How can we make a difference and stand up to the abhorrent slave masters facilitating this? Laurie was quick to respond with: “Be aware. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you go to a car wash and there are five people cleaning your car, there’s a good chance they’re not being paid minimum wage. Observe things and go with your gut instinct. Sometimes the smallest piece of intelligence can make all the difference to one of our case investigations. Everyone and anyone can help – it’s a crime that’s happening right now, in your street, your neighbourhood. It’s happening in plain sight and must be challenged.”

Hastings Independent would like to thank Natalie Williams, Laurie Church and the Discovery team for their assistance with this article.
If you think someone is a victim of human trafficking and modern slavery you can call the Modern Slavery Helpline confidentially on 08000 121 700.

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