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Labour Exploitation Advisory Group: front line services struggle to identify and support victims of trafficking

December 20, 2016

Trafficking for labour exploitation is a pervasive and largely hidden crime in the UK. Opportunities to identify those who have been trafficked are few, and critical – if a victim is not recognized and appropriately supported, the chance may be permanently missed. All front line agencies who come into contact with potential victims of trafficking – including law enforcement, local authorities, health services, and NGOs – have a responsibility to safeguard and assist those at risk, but many face challenges; lack of training and awareness among front line staff, language barriers, lack of resources to provide adequate support, and unclear referral pathways are just a few.

In their work with vulnerable and exploited workers, members of the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) find that front line services are often failing to identify victims of trafficking. Last week the LEAG met with representatives from the Metropolitan and City of London Police services, local authorities, safeguarding, and homeless services, to discuss key challenges for front line services when identifying and referring potential victims of trafficking and find ways to work in partnership to close some of the gaps that prevent identification.

UK commitment to end ‘modern slavery’

In the past two years, political awareness of human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ has changed considerably. With the UK’s introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, its ratification of the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour and the Prime Minister’s recent public commitment to ‘stamp out modern slavery’ through the creation of a government taskforce and commitment of £33 million for anti-trafficking efforts overseas, it seems political will is there to pursue and prosecute traffickers and prevent trafficking to the UK. However, while these changes represent important steps forward, it is increasingly evident that the government’s aim of eradicating modern slavery is at odds with a reality in which the services needed to protect, identify and support victims of modern slavery are critically under-funded.

Victims of trafficking for labour exploitation often do not identify themselves as such. Even if they do, many are reluctant or unable to report the crimes committed against them to the police. It is therefore crucial that all services who encounter vulnerable people, including social services, health services, mental health services, safeguarding, housing and homelessness services, are able to spot the signs and refer potential victims for the advice and support they need. However, stretched public services are reaching breaking point, and it was clear from all agencies represented at the meeting that resources for identification and support of victims in the UK are critically short. Without funds for training of front line staff, resources for assessment and support of vulnerable adults, and enough safe housing for victims fleeing exploitation, police and local authorities are struggling to identify potential victims or provide them with the most basic support.

Limited understanding of labour exploitation among front line services

Consistency of awareness and action across services is a key concern. Participants discussed how, for most, ‘modern slavery’ is a new area and although policies are being developed at a higher level, in practice staff lack experience or knowledge of what to look for and how to assist. A survey of NHS professionals has found that although 1 in 8 staff had come into contact with a patient they knew or suspected had been trafficked, the majority lacked confidence in how to respond. Among law enforcement, understanding of crimes under the Modern Slavery Act is poor; one homelessness organization shared cases of severe exploitation, in which the victim had approached police but had been told that, because they came into the country of their own will, they were not victims of trafficking. Such cases are alarming and point to the urgent need for clear and consistent training for all front line staff.

Ending exploitation

If the UK government is serious about stamping out modern slavery, it must do more to ensure that all front line services are resourced to train staff and provide for both immediate and long-term support needs of trafficked victims. Without adequate funding for services, victims of trafficking will continue to fall through the gaps, remaining in extremely exploitative situations. By working in partnership to raise awareness, develop systems within and between agencies, and press for vital resources to improve identification and support, we can begin to end the cycle of exploitation.