LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police and prosecutors in Britain are taking the fight to human traffickers and slavemasters, but the country needs a “change in culture” to end modern slavery, the UK’s anti-slavery tsar said.
Kevin Hyland, appointed independent commissioner in 2014 as part of Britain’s landmark Modern Slavery Act, said more cases of slavery were being investigated and taken to court as police learn to enforce the tough anti-slavery laws at their disposal.
Yet arrests, convictions and hefty prison sentences alone will not be enough to stamp out slavery in Britain, estimated to be home to tens of thousands of modern-day slaves, Hyland said.
“We need modern slavery to become socially unacceptable, like we saw with drink driving and domestic violence,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his office in central London.
“There isn’t an overnight fix,” Hyland said. “When every part of the UK (United Kingdom) thinks that this cannot be tolerated any longer, then we will see a change in culture.”
Britain is seen as being at the forefront of global efforts to tackle slavery, having passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015.
The law introduced life sentences for traffickers, offered better protection for people at risk of being enslaved, and forced companies to check their supply chains for forced labor.
Hyland said police were getting to grips with the law, and had recorded 2,255 modern slavery crimes in the past financial year - up from 870 cases during the same period for 2015/16.
Two London drug dealers who used a young woman to carry and sell drugs were this month convicted under Britain’s anti-slavery laws, in the first case of its kind, and Hyland said it would send a strong message to all criminals who enslave others.
“The police have moved forward leaps and bounds in the last couple of years,” Hyland said. “But the response to slavery in Britain is too often reactive - it needs to be more proactive.”
The National Audit Office, a spending watchdog, said last week Britain was struggling to tackle slavery as the Home Office (interior ministry) has an “incomplete picture” of the crime.
Hyland said his priorities for 2018 included securing more investigations and prosecutions, improving support for victims and engaging big businesses to ramp up efforts to fight slavery.
Under the modern slavery law, firms with a turnover of more than 36 million pounds ($48 million) must produce an annual statement showing what they have done to make their supply chains slavery-free.
Yet more than half of about 20,000 companies in Britain covered by the provision have failed to comply, while most FTSE 100 firms have taken a “tick box” approach to the legislation, according to several business pressure groups.
“It’s positive that many companies are reacting ... but we want more than just a report, we want their actions to mean something,” said Hyland.
As well as striving to get more businesses on board, Hyland said the year ahead would see him considering the impact of Europe’s migration crisis, Brexit, and the growing use of the internet by traffickers on Britain’s ability to combat slavery.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but Hyland said this figure was the tip of the iceberg, and called for a new, up-to-date number in 2018.
“We need a much better threat picture, to give us the best opportunity to tackle slavery,” the former police officer said.
“We want to take the fight to the criminals, to remove any impunity that exists for those who dare to commit these crimes.”
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org