June 2, 2020 / 5:22 PM / a month ago

UK anti-slavery charity sees jump in labour abuse calls to helpline

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Calls about labour abuse to a British helpline rose 42% last year as workers at building sites, hotels and car washes raised the alarm about unsafe or exploitative conditions, a report by an anti-slavery charity showed on Tuesday.

Unseen, which runs the helpline to identify potential cases of modern slavery in the country, said it will focus more closely on labour abuse due to the sharp increase in calls.

Unseen’s director, Justine Currell, said labour abuse cases could include inadequate protective equipment, failure to pay the minimum wage, long hours and a lack of breaks - warning that they could be a red flag for modern slavery.

“It starts to tip itself into modern slavery when it has that control element... When people feel like they can’t leave, where they’re debt bonded, when they have their passport taken,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation, with labour exploitation - such as people being forced to work to pay off a debt - being the most common form.

A record 10,627 suspected slaves were referred to the British government for help in 2019, official data shows, up by 52% in a year.

Unseen’s helpline data showed car washes, hotels, building sites and beauty and spa facilities were among the biggest sources of labour abuse complaints, which totalled 1,112. The biggest jump in calls related to building sites.

Britain’s labour exploitation watchdog, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), said investigating all reports of workplace abuse protects vulnerable workers and prevents more serious forms of exploitation such as forced labour.

“Driving up compliance with regulations helps prevent the more serious forms of exploitation from taking place,” a GLAA spokesman said.

“(This) allows us to investigate the smaller numbers of forced or compulsory labour offences which are at the most extreme end of labour abuse.”

As coronavirus controls are lifted, labour shortages and travel restrictions could create conditions for slavery to thrive as sectors such as hospitality and construction rush to recruit quickly, experts say.

“We need to get businesses to understand that as things start to open up and they find they’re struggling to secure workers that they don’t cut corners,” Currell said.

Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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