The building – a plain office block – is down a nondescript side-road, near a sleepy suburban train station. To protect the people working here, the location – a carefully guarded secret – was picked for its anonymity. Each day, the team who man the Modern Slavery Helpline fight to disrupt one of organised crime’s darkest and most lucrative income streams: the trafficking and exploitation of human beings.
“Would you like a tea? Biscuits?” Rachel Harper has managed the helpline since it launched in October 2016. “We’ve just been having a catch-up,” she gestures towards a low table where a rainbow of cupcakes and chocolates has been set out. “We get together and talk about some of the cases we’ve been working on. It’s important that the operatives get to share the stories they’ve heard and discuss how they’ve been impacted … trauma can linger, even if all you’re doing is listening.”
Ten operatives cover the helpline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2018, they took more than 6,000 calls. At the core of almost every call was the kind of trauma most of us are lucky to never come into contact with. On the table, under a half-eaten cupcake, a discarded pamphlet explains that “modern slavery, includes labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation, domestic servitude and organ harvesting”. “The people who call us can be in a very heightened state,” says Harper. “Which is understandable.”
Charlotte*, has been a helpline operative for just under two years. Each shift she takes an available desk, adjusts the brightness on her two screens, and then she waits. “I think the case that sticks with me most – for good and terrible reasons – is one I worked on where a woman was being kept as a domestic servant.” Domestic servitude is one of the hardest forms of slavery to combat because victims are so isolated – they might never be allowed to leave the home.
It was Charlotte who answered when a member of staff from a school called the helpline, saying she was concerned about one of the mums. “It took a few weeks for the woman to build up enough trust to speak to us,” she explains. “Through an interpreter we managed to convince her that everything would remain confidential until she wanted us to involve authorities.”
Up until that point, she had never been able to tell anyone the details of what had been happening to her because she spoke very limited English. “The story she told,” says Charlotte quietly, “it just feels like something that could happen to anyone.” Back in her home country, the woman had met and fallen in love with a man. “He told her that they would get married and start a new life together in the UK. So she packed everything up, and moved here with her children. When she got here, though, she realised that he already had a family, and was already married. He’d tricked her. He took her passport away and very quickly she found herself in a situation where she was living in their house and forced to do round-the-clock childcare and housework. She was sleeping on the floor in the children’s room.”
Nowadays few of us would be under the illusion that slavery ended with the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th Century, “but the sheer extent of the problem would still surprise most people,” says Charlotte. The only opportunity the woman had to go outside or talk to anyone else was when she was taking the children to school or picking them up again. “She was so closely monitored that they knew how long it should take so it was a delicate balancing act for us – trying to mitigate the danger of them finding out she’d been talking to someone.”
Eventually, the woman agreed to work with authorities who could help her escape her situation. “We’re trained on how to emotionally support someone through reliving trauma,” says Charlotte. “But it’s always hard, which is why we never do anything until the victim is ready. That can mean that they’re delayed in accessing help. But we think it’s more likely to be successful and healthier for them if they trust us. And if they’re ready to talk. She was terrified of losing her children or being sent back to her home country, where there were threats against her life. In the end, when she said she was ready to talk to authorities the school kept her safe there until the police turned up. There are so many frustrating and upsetting parts of the job,” continues Charlotte. “But when you truly help someone, everything else fades away.”
Though accurate figures are difficult to come by, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation an estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children are victims of modern slavery – that’s one person in every 200. In his book Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective, the slavery economist Siddharth Kara estimates that the slave trade has a global worth of $150bn and that, on average, each victim generates $3,978 profit per year for their exploiter.
Steven* has worked at the helpline for almost three years and is now supervisor, overseeing all of the calls that they receive. “I’d say about 20 per cent come from victims themselves – but we also get calls from police and local authorities wanting technical advice on slavery cases. We also get anonymous tip-offs.” In some instances, men who’ve tried to access the services of a sex worker have called the helpline after the woman (“99% of sexual exploitation victims are women,” says Harper) they’ve visited looked younger than they’d expected, or seemed to have been abused.
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“Sometimes it can be very vague,” continues Steven. “Somebody called the other day and said they’d seen two people in a well-known chain restaurant, and that something didn’t feel right. There seemed to be a master-servant situation going on where one person was eating but the other seemed not to be allowed to eat and that person looked distressed. You could interpret it as a modern slavery situation, but then again, maybe it’s domestic abuse.” In fact, in terms of the kinds of psychological controls that exploiters use to manipulate victims, there are many similarities between domestic abuse and modern slavery.
“There is always some degree of psychological control,” agrees Harper. “These could be threats – ‘if you don’t show up tomorrow, we know where your mother or little sister live’ — but also making someone feel as if they have nowhere else to turn.” When a slave is trafficked from outside the UK, exploiters will likely go to great lengths to convince them that if they go to the authorities they’ll be arrested and charged as criminals. “Take sexual exploitation, for instance,” says Harper. “Yes, sometimes people are locked in brothels, that does happen. But it can also just be text messages – they get an address and a time. They’re either chauffeured there or they go there because they’re afraid of what might happen if they don’t. They’re exploited, they never see the money – and this can go on for a long time. What’s really sad for me, about that situation, is that walking down the street they look like anyone else, with their phone in their hand, going somewhere…”
One of the most commonly used forms of control is debt bondage. “Meaning,” explains Harper, “that perhaps the victim pays someone for their ticket to the UK and when they get here, they’re told they owe huge amounts of interest. Or, it’s the boss who owns the flat where they live (often these are overcrowded and in abysmal conditions); they’re made to pay huge amounts in rent, then they’re transported to work, and charged for that drive, and then they’re charged for their groceries as well. All added up, there’s no way, no matter how hard they work, that they’re ever able to pay back that debt.” Debt bondage happens in a number of industries in the UK, including agriculture, construction and nail bars.
The first successful nail bar conviction found two Vietnamese girls working more than 60 hours per week in a nail bar in Bath, and living in squalid conditions in their exploiter’s home. When authorities – working with Unseen, the charity who run the Modern Slavery Helpline – took the two girls into foster care, they escaped and returned to their exploiters. “Many victims may not even realise they’re being exploited,” says Harper. “It shows how deep the layers of control go.”
As the helpline’s supervisor it is Steven’s job to check through the logs of all incoming calls. “Every time I start thinking that nothing can shock me anymore, a case comes in that’s so horrific that I’m taken aback – even though I’ve seen thousands of these cases.” Each operative has access to counselling and is encouraged to take regular time off. “It’s not like other jobs, where you can wait months for a holiday,” continues Steven. “It can really start to affect your mental health if you don’t step away.”
One of the most difficult calls Steven has taken was made by a man who’d been forced to work seven days a week in a factory for very little pay. When he called the helpline, he’d managed to escape his captors but he was being pursued – “it was a car-chase situation,” explains Steven. “I was trying to direct him to a police station, while also speaking to police to alert them of the fact that this was happening. It was hard because I knew that a person’s life was literally on the line – there was no room to mess up.”
“The story that I hear again and again is that someone thought they’d have a better life,” he continues. “Whether that’s somebody who thought that getting paid a very small amount of money to work crazy hours in a car wash would be a better life than what they were used to, or whether that’s a female who was told she’d have a decent job if she came to the UK, but then ends up forced into prostitution – the main recurring theme is hope. And it seems like wherever there are people who are desperate for a better life, there are others there waiting to exploit that desperation – and when you think of it like that, it can make you feel very jaded.”
Still, the person in the car chase situation managed to get to the police in time. “Yeah, we got him out,” says Steven. “So I guess, for every sad story, there’s also someone we’ve managed to help. That’s an amazing feeling – definitely.”