Report: UK product imports fuelling modern slavery at home and abroad

The UK purchased almost £14bn worth of products that were produced through forced labour last year, while 136,000 people living in modern slavery are now located in the UK, according to a new report.

The scale of modern slavery within the UK is much higher than previous research suggests, with the 2018 Global Slavery Index (GSI 2018) finding that 136,000 people are subjected to forced labour and human rights abuses in the UK today.

GSI 2018, published by non-profits the Walk Free Foundation and the Minderoo Foundation, maps country exposure and risk in relation to cases of modern slavery. The latest iteration of the index, published late last week, notes that developed nations are far more exposed to slavery than previously thought.

In the UK, for example, 136,000 were found to be living in modern slavery, equating to two victims for every 1,000 people in the country. Previous estimates from the Home Office in 2014 suggested that this figure was 13,000, but the National Crime Agency has since stated that this was the “tip of the iceberg”.

The UK’s modern slavery helpline identified and assisted 5,000 potential victims in its first full year, meaning that more than 96% of modern slavery cases have not been acted on.

The UK is also at risk of fuelling cases of modern slavery beyond its borders, due to its reliance on imports. The report found that the UK imports more than £13.7bn ($18bn) of “at-risk” goods – namely electronics and clothing – likely to have been produced through forced labour annually.

Only the US (£109bn), Japan (£35bn) and Germany (£22bn) within the G20 import more. The five largest “at-risk” product imports into the UK by volume are garments (£7bn), electronics (£6bn), fish (£365m), cocoa (£217m) and rice (£134m). Overall, G20 countries are importing £270bn of at-risk goods annually.

The Walk Free Foundation’s founder, Andrew Forrest, said: “The responsibility that developed countries have for modern slavery, revealed by this new data, is a huge wake-up call. The pressure to respond to this appalling human crime must shift from poorer countries to richer nations that have the resources and institutions to do much better. It is flourishing right under our noses.”

Government leadership

The report ranks the UK as the third most progressive nation for efforts to combat modern slavery, behind the Netherlands and the US. The report praises the UK Government for being the first to release a national estimate of modern slavery cases, alongside the publication of the “flagship” 2015 Modern Slavery Act, which calls on all companies with a turnover of more than £36m operating in the UK to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement.

The GSI 2018 found that forced labour is a common occurrence in the UK across various applications including car washes, nail bars, driveway and block paving, construction, agriculture, and food processing. Data was sourced from a study is based on the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), aimed at identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support.

The top five nationalities most likely to be victims of modern slavery in the UK were UK nationals, Albanian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Nigerian.

Matt Mace

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