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Could you identify slavery in your business?

Safety sign at a local food factory
Safety sign at a local food factory

I was talking to a canteen worker in a local food processing factory in Spalding a few months ago when they described how the gang labour that came in had one person who held all the debit cards of the employees to pay for their food in the canteen. I asked if she had reported this to management and she looked at me and asked, "Why?"

One of the signs of slavery can be that people do not have control of their own money. They will be typically working in groups where one is dominant over the others, and will often be the translator for non- English speakers. They will control their money and ensure all goes smoothly. Often that individual will in turn be controlled by coercive or intimidating behaviour. The victims will often either be undocumented, operating under false identities or if they have documents such as passports they will be held and controlled by their employer.

To those farmers and processors in Lincolnshire that think this cannot happen in their business I relate the following from 2019:

In December 2019 my daughter is doing indoor archery at Spalding Grammar School and I decide to walk into town on this cold December night. I was horrified at the number of homeless people I encountered. Whilst they were homeless for various reasons a group of five taking shelter in an archway off The Crescent had a particular relevance. They looked a sorry state and I bought them some cigarettes to gain their confidence so that I could talk to them. They were illegal immigrants and as such dare not ask for help as in doing so they risked having to agree to detention and returning to their country of origin. They had been here for two years and enjoyed working in the fields with their accommodation provided by their employer. This accommodation varied from multi-occupancy housing to outbuildings and sheds. I asked them to describe the sort of work they did and where they worked. It is clear that some of their employment was local to Spalding on local farms and pack houses. However, wet weather had resulted in work disappearing, and with it their accommodation. Their former boss had also vanished and they were stuck with no work, no money, no shelter, nowhere to live. Whilst not directly responsible it is a failure of the food and farming industry that this had happened. It is a failure of those employers and even their fellow employees that this was either not of concern or not spotted.

It is not just employers that are at fault it is those of us that enjoy a cheap car wash without considering who is working there. Recently more than 20 hand car washes in Lincolnshire were visited by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority as part of a national crackdown on modern slavery.

In 2018 51 victims of modern slavery were found and refered to the authorities, in 2019 it exceeded 200. Do not think it is just foreign nationals and illegal immigrants that are lured into slavery, if you were to list the victims by nationality UK residents come third nationally. Vulnerable people are exploited regardless of nationality.

Before any glib employer says that they are fully audited for slavery and belong to an industry anti-slavery scheme I simply answer this. I have in the past completed the anti-slavery forms to the satisfaction of a recognised scheme. It was nothing but a box-ticking exercise that could easily be circumvented. Indeed on the form you could indicate the busiest periods for employing casual staff, which could easily be mis-stated to circumvent or discourage any meaningful inspection. So when I see the words: "XYZ Ltd strictly prohibits the use of modern slavery and human trafficking in our operations and supply chain. We have and will continue to be committed to ensuring that modern slavery is not taking place anywhere within our organisation or in any of our supply chains." I take it with a pinch of salt and regard it as lip service.

So what can or should employers do?

I believe the solution is in one case I have come across. This East Anglian farmer was shocked to discover he was employing slaves on his farm. It came to light because regardless of whether they were casual gang labour or direct employees he held a small Christmas party for all workers. It was at that event that fellow employees learned of the plight and living circumstances of the gang workers and advised their boss, who, to his shock, uncovered modern day slavery within his business. The answer is training and awareness of employees. It should be treated the same as any other health and safety training.

To train all your employees in what to look for need not be expensive. Indeed, you are protecting your business, your reputation and your customers who grandly state their is no slavery in their supply lines.

So what can you look for?

Control - employees that have their documentation and bank cards held by someone else. Employees who are being strictly monitored and are unable to move or travel freely to and from work. Employees that rely on their employer for transport or accommodation and can only travel with other workers. Employees not able to talk freely with others. Signs of bruising or of being a victim of violence. Pay paid into a third party account,

Behaviour - fear of authorities or of you as a boss. Allowing others to speak for them, often a female speaking for males in a group as she will be an easier lieutenant to control. Wear the same clothes every day.

Trust your gut - you may be wrong, but what harm against the good that can be done by raising suspicions. Think of the victims and think of your business. Gather as much information as is practical. Descriptions of those invlved; their location in both work and where they live; travel methods and number plates; any finacial information or documents you may have or have seen.

Report to your local police or refer to the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700. The Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority can be contacted on 0800 432 0804 or emailed on .

Think of the victims - they can get support in UK from The Salvation Army or give victims their number 0300 303 8151. Next time you see a Salvation Army collection box a donation will help.

Finally, if like my father, you moan about illegal immigrants whilst potentially exploiting them by having your car washed by them, consider downloading the "Safe Car Wash" App and completing it as you are having your car washed.

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