Modern slavery needs modern solutions

27 Oct 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 27 Oct 2017

Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash
Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

The justice system is adapting relatively quickly to the horror that is modern slavery - but while efforts are stepping up to eradicate the problem, there still needs to be more support for victims.

Efforts to tackle modern slavery are increasing.

This chilling crime remains largely hidden and recorded statistics – of suspected and confirmed cases, and associated arrests and convictions – are thought to represent a minority of cases.

In modern slavery, the existence of both the crime and the victim are not apparent, making solutions difficult. This can happen with other crimes - but it is part of the fundamental nature of modern slavery, and this is what sets it apart.

While there is a renewed focus on this social scourge, there are also criticisms, and the belief that some of the approaches being taken could be improved.

This relates not just to how we identify these crimes, as law-enforcement agencies continue to adapt themselves to the circumstances, but in how victims are handled.

Those recovered from modern slavery are often in the most desperate of circumstances. They can then be overwhelmed with requests to help with authorities in the prosecution of perpetrators while, at the same time, struggling to find the means to get their own life back on track. This is a major problem.

What is being done

Greater resources have been put into this issue in Northern Ireland and also in the UK as a whole. October 18 was Anti-Slavery Day and within a few days either side of this several reports and announcements were made.

Westminster published its latest Annual Report on Modern Slavery; Kevin Hyland, the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (in post since 2015) published his Annual Report for 2016-17; and the Home Office published A Typology of Modern Slavery Offences in the UK, a new report which aims to characterise all the ongoing variations of this crime (and ultimately identified 17 different types of offence).

Scope previously spoke with Mr Hyland, a few months after he came into post, and his report is upbeat despite calling for significant reforms.

Information is one key aspect in the eradication of modern slavery, both between the many different agencies who work against it, and between the public and these agencies.

That was made clear by the local Department of Justice when it launched its own awareness campaign last Thursday, in partnership with local councils, the emergency services, public and private organisations and a wide range of third-sector organisations.

The DoJ is trying to raise awareness among the public about how to spot the little things that might seem relatively innocuous but can be indicators that slavery is taking place. The campaign is being helped along by several public organisations, such as health trusts and local councils, who will display relevant information.


Raising awareness is very important. Per the Westminster Annual Report: “The most robust current estimate of the scale of modern slavery in the UK was produced by the Home Office in 2014. The estimate suggested that there were between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK in 2013. While this is only an estimate, it highlights the shocking extent of this crime and the scale of the challenge.”

These numbers are huge. Locally, the PSNI has recovered 100s of victims from situations of modern slavery or exploitation since the establishment of the service’s Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) in 2015.

Nevertheless, there have only been a handful of prosecutions relating to modern slavery in NI in the past three years. Progress has been made but there remains work to be done - but this is not where all criticisms are focused.

The Law Centre NI says that the current system is not equipped with a contemporary understanding of modern slavery, and that legal avenues of redress are not fit for purpose.

Law Centre Director Ursula O’Hare said: “A victim-centred approach is needed for those entrapped in modern slavery to ensure that wrongs are acknowledged, and that people have the means to be able to move on from the emotional and physical damage which can follow as a result of exploitation.”

Specifically, they are calling for three key changes to the current system:

  • Introduction of a state-funded scheme that would enable victims to secure unpaid wages arising from their ordeal;
  • A new civil wrong of “labour exploitation” that would allow recovery of compensation for injury to feelings; and
  • Provision of legal aid for those who wish to take civil proceedings either at the Industrial Tribunal or in the civil courts.


The Law Centre published a report in February that outlined much of the rationale for these changes.

“Domestic and international law requires the UK government and NI Assembly to assist and support victims of trafficking to obtain compensation for their exploitation… contrary to a misconception, there is no straightforward process whereby victims automatically receive compensation…

“The majority of victims identified/recovered by enforcement agencies are destitute, having endured months or years of extreme financial hardship, thus any financial remedy – whether consisting of recovered wages or compensation for poor treatment – can be hugely valuable to the victim. Compensation can help reduce the victim’s susceptibility to further exploitation. Further, compensation is evidence that an injustice has occurred and thus it can assist victims recover their sense of dignity and self-worth.

“Many victims recovered from situations of trafficking/slavery are immediately subject to a number of different legal and support processes. For example, many victims are referred into the National Referral Mechanism for a trafficking determination and some have concurrent asylum claims. Both are rigorous processes. In addition, some victims are witnesses to crime investigations. No doubt these different processes are bewildering, especially for those with limited language skills or familiarity with our systems. The prospect of embarking on yet another legal process(es) is likely to be daunting for victims – but necessary for those seeking a financial remedy. In short, it can be practically difficult for some workers to take the time to explore potential financial remedies.”


There are two pathways to financial remedy via criminal proceedings:

Slavery and Trafficking Reparation Orders – (STRO) - these are compensation orders that can be made against those convicted of trafficking or modern slavery offences, which are good in principle but obviously can only come into play if there has been a conviction, which is not guaranteed in identified cases and will take significant time regardless.

Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme Claim (NI) – (CICS) - this is a statutory fund which is accessible under certain criteria, and this might not be straightforward. Per the Law Centre NI report: “Although victims of human trafficking and slavery may have endured extreme hardship (both in terms of working conditions and their living conditions) and may have been subjected to threats of violence, they may not qualify for CICS compensation if they cannot demonstrate having suffered physical violence and/or mental trauma constituting a “disabling mental illness”. We see this as a significant limitation on the value of the CICS for victims of forced labour.”

Other complications include that victims of modern slavery are not entitled to compensation for loss of earnings under CICS, and that full co-operation with authorities is another necessary condition – something that many victims struggle with, e.g. some do not feel in the frame of mind to give evidence in court.

It is possible for victims to pursue claims through industrial tribunals but there are several issues with this, stemming in part because as things stand those fora are not well equipped to handle cases of slavery, including with an absence of access to legal aid for victims.

Other theoretical pathways are available in the civil courts, but Law Centre NI is calling on the DoJ to put together a working group to identify the different remedies available, assess their effectiveness, and work on other changes including the requests outlined above, and also the removal of the co-operation requirement.

Commissioner, and moving forward

The Commissioner’s latest report is keen to praise the improvements in how we deal with modern slavery. However, he still sees plenty of room for improvement – including in ways that chime with the Law Centre’s own recommendations.

Mr Hyland’s first priority for the future is “Victim identification and care”, and he has called for significant changes in the support network for victims – including “entitlements to recourse to public funds and services, as well as a personal move-on plan to help their recovery.”

His report says: “Lack of move-on and long-term support for victims of modern slavery in the UK remains one of the key issues being addressed by the Commissioner. He has been working with the Government and other external partners to identify existing gaps and emerging good practice in victim care across the UK.

“One of his key recommendations was to ensure that… victims receive appropriate support tailored to their individual needs. In addition, this decision ought to recognise victims of modern slavery as vulnerable victims of a serious crime and provide them with a pathway into mainstream support services to aid their reintegration into society.”

There seems to be a consensus that, in both NI and the wider UK, our efforts to take on modern slavery have improved significantly in recent years.

These crimes have achieved greater prominence and a lot of work has gone into eradicating what is a horrific problem. Slavery dates back to antiquity but these days manifests as a very modern problem to which the legal system is adapting.

Nonetheless, there is plenty more to be done. Let us all hope that we keep up the momentum.

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