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Slavery on Britain's cannabis farms

Cannabis farms are being run in suburban houses by organised crime gangs, and staffed by illegally s

Children - particularly from Vietnam and China - are being trafficked to the UK to work as slaves in illegal cannabis farms.

These 'farms', run by organised crime gangs, are often situated in suburban houses. The children, generally aged between 14 and 16, are smuggled into the country before being locked in the houses to water cannabis plants. They have been found sleeping in cupboards or attics to make more space for plants, and are at constant risk of fire or electrocution due to illegal rewiring of electricity supplies.

Rather than being treated as victims, these children frequently suffer a second ordeal upon discovery by the authorities. A 2007 Home Office report on child trafficking describes how at least four Vietnamese children of the twenty two in the dataset were not identified as victims of trafficking and were arrested for cannabis cultivation.

“If a child is identified in a cannabis factory, then are are in a situation of harm, and are probably being controlled by adults,” says Christine Beddoe, director of the charity End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT). “Decision making on their treatment should flow from that. Instead, children are seen as criminals.”

An all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking last year established guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on child trafficking in order to avoid such miscarriages of justice. However, the evidence of numerous court cases since then show a reluctance to put this into action. Twelve trafficked Vietnamese immigrants were tried in a single case last year for conspiracy to produce cannabis, including a 14 year old girl. A 17 year old girl in a separate case will be deported as a foreign criminal at 18.

ECPAT frequently provide expert witnesses for court cases, securing the release of a child earlier this year after the CPS admitted that the conviction was not in the public interest. Such victories are a tough fight: this appeal alone took five months of legal wrangling by a specialist team. The cases continue, despite a landmark ruling in July 2007, when Judge Christopher Mitchell refused to sentence two young Vietnamese men, aged 16 and 20, saying that they were victims of “modern slavery” after reading about cannabis farms in a newspaper.

“There is a gap between the mechanism of protection provided by the CPS guidelines and the reality on the ground, where there is no clear policy or practice guidelines for police to follow,” says Beddoe. “The police and the CPS say that these children are not trafficked, not because there is proof that they are not, but because they haven't investigated the possibility.”

Although these children were identified as a risk group over a year ago, Home Office Minister Alan Campbell admits that “No central records are kept on juvenile offenders who may have been victims of trafficking. It is not therefore possible to give a reliable figure.”

Independent research and uncollated data suggests that the problem is on a huge scale. The charity DrugScope found that in London alone 1500 cannabis farms were raided from 2005 – 7, and that approximately two thirds of these were run by Vietnamese criminal gangs. When farms are raided, police arrest the only people there – the so-called 'gardeners', typically trafficked adults or children.

“Young people who have been trafficked and are found tending cannabis farms should be treated as victims, not criminals,” said Harry Shapiro, director of communications at DrugScope. “They work in cramped, dangerous conditions and should be given support and protection, not imprisonment.”

Tragically, these children can all too easily slip through the net, a lack of co-ordination meaning that they bypass government provisions for lone asylum-seeking children. Local authorities and children's services will deal with the child as a young offender, guilty of cannabis cultivation or of carrying false documents, despite the fact that the UN's Palermo Protocol states that a child cannot consent to his or her own exploitation. Being instantly criminalised means that they are not referred to specialist trafficking units and are left with virtually no ability to claim asylum or protection.

Independent charities and pressure groups, providing much needed research and support to victims and the authorities, are calling for the creation of a Human Traffic Rapporteur, to provide clear information and act as a watchdog for the implementation of laws. This is considered international good practice by the UN, and a successful model is in place in the Netherlands.

The deadline for ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings is approaching. It requires member states to regularly gather and analyse information on human trafficking, and includes measures for victims to claim asylum. However, no concrete policy plans have been made as to its implementation in the UK, and it was announced last week that the Met's specialised police unit will close in April.

The child victims of the cannabis trade may have a long wait before they gain automatic protection.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain