In 2015, Theresa May managed to get Parliament to pass the Modern Slavery Act. This week, she launched a new task force to tackle the issue abroad. It is funded by £33m from the aid budget, and will be guaranteed funding for at least five years.
As a parliamentary researcher in 2014, I had sight of the modern day slavery bill. As a former charity leader, I have contributed my thoughts to various thinktanks. And as such, I remain very sceptical about the Government’s commitment to ending slavery.
What May is proposing is not in any way enough to tackle this devastating issue. Not only that, but some of her Government’s positions directly undermine her efforts. Here are five of the biggest problems:
Across the UK, women and children are being abused, groomed and sexually exploited on a daily basis. Yet the resources to deal with this problem are diminishing. Police, social services and local councils are being stripped of funding in the name of austerity – or, in May’s words, “spending within our means”. The Local Government Association estimates in real terms councils will have 27 per cent less funding by 2019. This is less money for prevention of crime, education, domestic violence services, charities, social workers and asylum seeker support. Without these vital frontline services and workers, tackling slavery at a local level will be incredibly difficult. And yet the Conservatives continue to push through staggering cuts to local government.
2. Victim support
The Modern Slavery Act is strongly weighted towards criminal justice. Yes, we must tackle slavery at a criminal justice level, but the victims cannot be forgotten. The psychological impact of slavery means victims often need longterm support for reintegration, or there is a risk they will find themselves back with their trafficker and in slavery again. This is costly though. Unless the Government invests more in support, we will see victims trapped in this devastating cycle.
3. Punitive asylum rules
Theresa May’s “tough on immigration” mantra has contributed to a punitive asylum system where too often women who escape a trafficker find themselves in prison. The now-defunct Eaves Charity shared story after story of victims fleeing violent and terrifying situations, who arrived at a police station with no money or passport looking for help and instead were sent to Yarl’s Wood – a detention centre for asylum seekers – or threatened with being sent back to the country they had been trafficked from.
Issues such as trafficking, modern day slavery and violence against women increasingly needing to be dealt with at an international level. It is Article 4 of the ECHR (the one that up until recently May wanted to take us out of) that prohibits slavery, and holds us as a family of nations to account. With an uncertain future with the EU and an uneasy relationship with the ECHR, it is unclear how the UK can continue to co-operate at a pan-European level.
5. Cheap goods
Our desire for cheap, imported goods drives production costs down, which in turn creates a demand for cheap, or slave labour. So long as our consumer-driven economy demands this, governments are unlikely to hold the firms producing goods to account. Until we start seriously championing ethical production and demanding more transparent supply chains, the demand for slaves will remain high.
It is a great travesty of our time that certain people’s lives are still a commodity, that they are still bought and sold for money. But ending slavery is complex. The Government must address the root causes, and stop looking at slavery in isolation of other issues such as austerity, violence against women and international human rights. Otherwise, promises to stop slavery become simply meaningless platitudes.