We speak to Lys Ford from the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority about why reporting suspicions or concerns about modern slavery is so important.
In a medium-sized UK city, a group of people working in the homelessness sector get together regularly to share information about their clients. They swap stories, and keep each other up to date on developments that they might need to know about. One meeting, a member of the group shares that recently they have noticed a white van hovering round their drop-in centre with two men in it, who seem to be approaching their clients to offer work. Another member says they have also noticed a van, maybe it’s the same one? They decide to all keep an eye out, and soon more members report seeing the van around their projects. A few weeks later, the van seems to have moved on as no one has seen it in a while. They assume it was a random occurrence and think no more about it.
But what if it wasn’t random? What if it was a group of traffickers systematically visiting each homeless project, relying on vulnerability and desperation to recruit their next batch of victims? The van could now be full of homeless men, who will spend the next eight weeks tarmacking driveways and patching up roofs, being threatened with violence, not paid, and fed on stale sandwiches, before being unceremoniously dumped a few hundred miles away. And then the cycle will start again in another city: the same white van, different victims.
What if that group hadn’t kept the information to themselves? What if they had told their volunteers, warned their clients, and passed concerns on to the police? What if they had recorded the license plate number, and descriptions of the men driving the van? The exploitation of a group of homeless men could have been prevented, and a gang of traffickers stopped in their tracks.
Perhaps you think that is far-fetched, but in a recent conversation Lys Ford, from the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), suggested that reporting instances like this one could make a big difference to people in slavery.
“Your piece of information could be the key to helping someone out of this horrible situation. It could be the piece of the jigsaw that means we have an opportunity to help an individual out of this abuse.”
At the GLAA they have been increasingly aware that there is a strong connection between modern slavery and homelessness. “Through anecdotal evidence and prosecuted cases we can see that the largest number of people trafficked currently are UK males – and the majority fall into the homeless bracket. They may have dependency issues, find themselves homeless, and then they become easy targets for people seeking to exploit.” Lys says.
The church looks after tens of thousands of vulnerable people, including the homeless, so it’s not difficult to imagine that we are also coming across thousands of victims of modern slavery. If we can recognise the signs, how many more people could be rescued? A recent Panorama documentary revealed the biggest modern slavery operation in the UK came about as a result of a tip off from volunteers at a church’s soup kitchen who had concerns about a group of their guests.
How many more opportunities are we missing? Lys thinks it could be more than we realise. She regularly sees cases where the victims had at one point been homeless and in contact with support services. “If people had thought to share their stories with other agencies and with law enforcement, they could have been picked up much earlier.”
Many of the signs of modern slavery that Lys would typically recommend looking out for are difficult to use in the homeless sector. “It has to be more nuanced. A dishevelled appearance, poor hygiene, and bad language skills are common amongst homeless people so it’s difficult to use those as indicators. Instead be on the look out for individuals that don’t quite fit. Anyone running a shelter knows the people that come in and out regularly. Someone who doesn’t quite fit and comes in and starts to engage someone in conversation and then takes them away, perhaps in a car or a van, is a potential recruiter. Or if you don’t witness that yourself, but you have clients who are there regularly and then one day disappear, that is worrying and worth reporting.”
Even if we do recognise the signs, the criminal context to modern slavery can make us shy away from confronting it, perhaps because we’re nervous about getting someone in trouble, are afraid for our own safety, or for the safety of others. To address this, it is important that churches have a clear understanding of how reporting modern slavery works and the role that different partners have in responding to any situation they may have discovered. The partner you contact may depend on the circumstances of the victim or the case in question. You can find more information on how to report on the Let’s Talk page of our website.
Lys encourages anyone who has concerns to make that phone call and to “please do something, rather than nothing. You can call the GLAA anonymously if you like, but please do pass the information on.”
Reporting your concerns about potential instances of modern slavery could make a huge difference to those who are at risk of being exploited in the UK. Join us in saying we see you to potential victims, and let’s talk to them, to each other, and to law enforcement, to make sure that no one else becomes a victim of this horrible crime.
Find out more about the links between modern slavery and homelessness and download resources to help raise awareness on our Let’s Talk page.
Photos via Unsplash.