Can slavery be defeated?

10 Sep 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 11 Sep 2015

Forced labour remains a global scourge. Scope went along to a Law Centre NI conference and spoke with Kevin Hyland, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and former top cop at the Met, about what can be done.

Current estimates say there are 35 million people in the world – about one in every 200 - who are slaves.

Unsurprisingly that ratio drops when it comes to where we live, but maybe not as far as you think. Between 10,000 and 13,000 people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland are believed to be victims of forced labour.

That’s like the entire population of Downpatrick. It also equates to around one in every 5,000 people who live in the UK.

This week the Law Centre NI, as part of its Anti-Trafficking Young People Project and with funding from Comic Relief, hosted a conference called Eradicating Modern Slavery in Northern Ireland.

One of the key speakers was Kevin Hyland OBE, former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Unit and recently-appointed as UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Mr Hyland told the conference that “I stand here in shame” because of the need for an anti-slavery commissioner in 2015.

He outlined some of the many ways slavery manifests itself in Northern Ireland and other parts of the developed West in the modern day – including factory workers getting £2 per day, a 7-year-old girl in “Cinderella” circumstances, whose teeth were rotting and who was only ever seen by neighbours when putting bins outside her “wealthy” North London home, and other horrific examples.

“The eradication of slavery has to be the aim. It’s a difficult challenge, and demanding, but it has to be the aim.

“All these things are happening here in Northern Ireland, and throughout the UK, and they are fuelled by demand and fuelled by ignorance of the situation and fuelled by the fact that some people are happy to buy and sell other people as a commodity.”

The question is, however, just how far can we go?

The dynamics of slavery

Modern slavery is a modern industry. It operates globally and depends upon, and is driven by, a multitude of factors that see people and money moving across borders and continents.

Given there are an estimated 35 million slaves at work today, it is worth a fortune – with profits of $150bn a year according to the UN’s International Labour Organisation.

It is also difficult to know just how much we as consumers benefit from forced labour in the goods and services we receive.

Scope wrote previously about the existence of this matter in Northern Ireland, and the cruelty and cunning of slavers, but the victims do not have to be here for us to receive the fruits of their labour.

Some possible examples are well known and simple to identify – such as concerns over massive sporting events like the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and the next two football world cups in Russia and Qatar.

But much international business is much more difficult exhaustively to oversee, with complicated supply chains for goods, and also labour.

Mr Hyland said a key part of tackling slavery would be the co-operation both of the private sector, and also the banks being wise to patterns of transactions that could flag up possible forced labour offences.

“In 2013 it was estimated that there were between 10,000 and 15,000 people in the UK subject to forced labour. This should be looked at in the context of other crimes – and it should be noted that only a total of 2,744 of these people were known to the authorities.

“Only last week I went to a support centre and met incredible people who are working to help victims. What especially interested me was a young man who told me how he ended up in the UK, what he experienced, and who he had met.

“He had been in a passport factory in Eastern Europe, with connections to gun running and drugs. I asked him how if he had met any police officers or someone from law enforcement. He said no. How can that be right, with all that information he has got?

“If you get all his information and work backwards you can break that whole network and you will have an impact that goes across Europe.”

He said partnership working is necessary to have any chance of beating the slavery scourge, such as some intelligent working between HMRC, financial institutions and big businesses in the UK.

This is obviously not an easy thing to do. There may be a lot of goodwill from many, if not all, people in a position to help, but the stubborn persistence of these problems shows how difficult they are to tackle.

Not only is cross-sectoral collaboration essential, all underpinned and supported by the work of various justice agencies, but international co-operation is also needed – with steps being made in the right direction, as later this month the UN is set to include “ending modern slavery and human trafficking” as part of its sustainable development goals for the coming 15 years.

Indeed My Hyland himself has previously written about the need for slavery to be seen as part of development broadly, as opposed to just a criminal matter.


After his speech, Mr Hyland chatted with Scope about the practicalities of eradicating slavery, given it is both persistent and complicated.

He agreed that slavery is a function of both demand for it and of its possibility – although these two variables are both culminations of many, many factors themselves.

Is it really possible to eliminate this problem entirely?

“It’s like any crime. Eradication is difficult, but when you are in conflict your aim is peace. You have got to set out what you want, and we are not going to do this by half measures.

“In realistic terms, this won’t be done next week. This is a long-term goal.”

The commissioner said the myriad reasons that lead to slavery cut across many aspects of civil society, and that there is an interesting corollary to this.

Rates of slavery provide a useful indicator for the state of civil society, wherever it takes place.

Reducing forced labour – and trying to eradicate it – are ends in themselves. But how we get on in tackling this issue might tell us something more general about how local and global communities are moving forward.

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