Modern Slavery: A Q&A

Education around modern slavery is a topic very close to EcoSki’s heart so we were honoured to have the opportunity to sit down with one of the leading experts in this field, Caroline Haughey, OBE QC.

With a reputation as being one of the foremost trafficking and modern slavery prosecutors in the UK, Caroline shares her personal stories of working with the victims of modern slavery, how as consumers we have the opportunity to create positive change, as well as offering practical advice to both those witness to and those living in slavery.

Recognising Modern Slavery

Slavery affects millions of men, women and children every year; an accurate figure is hard to measure due to the hidden nature of modern slavery. However, in 2019 it was estimated that 40.3 million people were living in some sort of slavery. Although horrifying to think about, for many of us, slavery appears distant and unrelatable as we go about our day-to- day lives; nonetheless, it is a devastating reality that many of us unknowingly play a part in.

From the nail bars and car valeting services we visit, to the clothes we wear and the food we eat, it is highly likely that some of the workers within these industries have been exploited for other’s gain.

What is slavery?

Caroline Haughey OBE QC: Slavery is a form of exploitation; it’s a circumstance where someone works for another individual and there is no meaningful way in which they can change their situation. They are treated like a piece of property, so there is an element of ownership.

Forced compulsory labour covers the very vast majority of slavery offences which I would call exploitation offences. These offences can be anything from child labour in the Congo working in mines to Polish labourers working on fields for no or limited pay in the UK to girls working in Vietnamese nail bars with no documentary ID, who are given a roof over their head and food as opposed to wages. So, as you can tell, exploitation and slavery offences can take a variety of different forms and it is happening worldwide.

How do people become victims of slavery? Is anyone immune?

CH: Modern slavery and trafficking happens in plain sight. I think what people forget is exploitation is completely unbiased; it has nothing to do with your sexuality, your race, your faith, your socio economic status. It’s about what vulnerability you have and whether someone who understands that vulnerability comes across you and exploits it. Take the example of the girls working in the Vietnamese nail bar: If they are illegally in the UK, they don’t speak English, they don’t have ID documents, they don’t have any money, but if someone offers them a roof over their head and food then, to them, that’s better than being on the streets. All they know is cultural recognition so being with the person who speaks their language and gives them Vietnamese food is some security for them. They settle for the least worst alternative but end up with even less rights than they had before.

You have had a spectacular career to date: regarded as one of the leading experts in Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in the UK, you were involved in the drafting of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, prosecuted the first sex trafficking, child sex trafficking and child labor exploitation cases under the new Act, is the author of Modern Slavery Act Review 2016 (to name just a few of your achievements!), can you tell us how you became so interested in this field?

CH: I didn’t set out to be a modern slavery practitioner; I, like most people, didn’t think modern slavery existed.

I always knew I wanted to be a criminal barrister and my introduction to the profession came when I was a student living in Dublin. My flat was in the red light district and there was a prostitute, called Monica, whose patch was right outside our front door. I lived in the basement flat and I had an extremely attractive flatmate who was being stalked at the time. Monica would ring the police whenever she saw her stalker around, and when it was cold and wet me and my flatmate would leave a thermos flask and umbrella under the stairs for Monica so she knew that there was somewhere for her to come to. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

For my Finals, my lecturer suggested I do something on prostitution because I had access to it in a way that no one else did. So Monica took me to meet the girls and we literally walked the streets together. That summer when I was working in Dublin, three prostitutes were killed. At an event I was a guest at, also in attendance was a Minister for Justice and I spoke to him about my experience and the recent deaths; his response: “Oh well, it won’t happen again.” But it happened, the very next night. Subsequently, he asked me to take my Finals thesis and make it into a government working white paper proposing the decriminalisation of prostitution.

I then came to London and trained to be a criminal barrister. During my career I have developed a reputation for doing cases that have never been tried and tested before, hence there are a few ‘firsts’ on my CV! It is the ‘Why’ someone commits the crime that interests me as much as ‘Who’ has done what.

Over the years, the fashion industry has been exposed as one of the main contributors to modern day slavery; only last year the UK online fast fashion retailer Boohoo was investigated for reportedly underpaying their workers and allowing poor working conditions, and the #PayUp movement was global. How can we support garment workers and importantly, not be tempted to buy from brands who do not care, value and protect their employees?

On the most basic level, and this is easy for everyone to do especially when shopping online, look for or ask about the brand’s transparency and supply chain compliance statement. Any company with a turnover of £36 million or more, who has any business activity that goes through the UK, must put this on their website. This statement shows what they are doing and how their supply chain works as far as human exploitation is concerned.

Next, and this is the most obvious, is price. If you go somewhere and buy a t-shirt for £5, really ask yourself how can something be made for this price when materials, wages, manufacturing costs all have to be taken into account, and this is before any mark-up on the garment is added. Likewise, if you go to a nail bar; you pay £10 to get a manicure: Baring in mind that this is just above the UK national living wage, again you have to ask yourself how can the company charge this amount when wages and resources have to paid for. Consumers have to call out companies but equally as consumers, we have to be conscientious and vigilant when it comes to our spending power.

For those who can afford it, it is our responsibility to be ethically able and economically sensible. And we need to think about the longevity of our materials. When it comes to fashion, we need to adopt adaptable fashion: for example how can I transform my loungewear worn throughout lockdown into picnic wear? We have to compensate for those who are less fortunate and able than ourselves. And that’s not just in fashion, but also in food. We’re a very critical society and I find it unacceptable that we should criticise those who cannot afford to buy anything but the cheapest food. Why should they be criticised for doing what they need to do in order to survive? For those of us who can, we need to be responsible for what we are eating and wearing and where we are getting these products from. It is then our responsibility to educate those coming behind us. We each walk our own path and we need to leave behind the best possible path for others to follow.

Living through the last 12 months with the pandemic, it has been a year like no other; for those suffering at the hands of others, their lives must have become unimaginable. Have victims been able to receive adequate help and support during this time?

Slavery has been pushed further and further behind closed doors and we don’t know where the victims have gone. If traffickers haven’t sent their victims home – transporting them back is cheaper than looking after them and a dead body can be very hard to get rid of – slavery victims have been pushed online. Chat rooms and online prostitution have become rife.

For those of us not aware that millions of people are being subjected to appalling living and working conditions on a daily basis, are there warning signs? What can we do to help?

Ask the question: How are you? But be sure to ask it with integrity and really listen to their answer. Language is key here and if you can’t communicate with them personally, ask someone who can. One example I can share is of a doctor who witnessed an owner/ victim situation: refused permission to talk to the victim by the owner, and unable to communicate to the victim directly due to a language barrier, the doctor arranged for another visit and this time a Swahili interpreter was present. They asked the question “How are you?” and the victim was able to reveal everything.

Can you share any survivor stories? What does the future look like for the men, women and children who have been suffering at the hands of their traffickers?

CH: Interestingly, the court process is often part of helping victims to come out the other side. Having people listen to what the victims have to say, being asked about their ordeal, validates them and gives them back some of their dignity. This process also helps them to understand that they, the victims, have done nothing wrong.

Some of my victims have gone on to do amazing things: a case involving a Hungarian girl resulted in her meeting the Pope! She now works at a refuge that I go to occasionally and has really blossomed.

Another case I had involved one young woman who was locked in a room and raped every day for six months. She gave evidence twice and the man who did it to her was given a 38 year sentence. Although her family don’t know her horrendous ordeal, the Police are still in contact with her and she is building her life back together. She’s going on as normal, in the sense that she is in control of her destiny and no one else can control it for her. There is definitely life after exploitation.

Where can victims go to get help?

CH: Modern Slavery Helpline 08000 121 700 and of course the police

The Salvation Army are experts in this field and there are a large number of other organisations doing a huge amount of amazing work including:

  • The Poppy Project
  • The Helen Bamber Project Hope For Justice Kalaayan
  • Palm Cove Society Medaille Trust
  •  The GLAA (Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority) is a government organisation that deals with exploitation in the fresh produce sectors and works together