Does it matter that gangmasters are targeting people with disabilities?

4th June 2021 | Modern slavery

The Clewer Initiative

His analysis is deeply troubling.

In December 2020, the BBC website published an article I'd written based on the modern slavery storyline in The Archers. Like other listeners to the radio soap, I was gripped by a plot in which an established and respected member of village life was slowly being unmasked as a callous gangmaster. Above and beyond all the drama, I had another, more important and personal motive for wanting to write that article.

I'd noticed something unusual about how the three, young, UK-born, modern slaves were being depicted. Only one of them, called Blake, had a speaking part and it sounded to me like he had a Learning Disability. It was a detail that lent weight to an idea that had been growing in my mind for the previous three years – and here was my chance to do some research.

When I pitched my article to an editor at the BBC, he initially sounded slightly sceptical. After all, none of the other characters in The Archers had referred to Blake as having a disability. Understandably, he wanted to fact-check and emailed a colleague on The Archers' team. When he received the reply, "Mike is correct in what he's deduced,” I got the green light to start my investigations.

Part of my reason for being interested in this issue has to do with my own situation as someone with a disability.

After losing my sight at 16, I soon realised I faced two distinct forms of difficulty. There were those problems that arose from no longer being able to see – like not being able to read or get about – which I could partly overcome by learning Braille and how to use a white-cane. However, there was a separate set of difficulties – just as upsetting, but harder to control – that had to do with how I was now regarded and treated as someone with a disability. Suddenly, my views and friendship were of less value; I had less chance of employment; and, even if I was one of the lucky 40% of visually impaired people with a job, I was less likely to be promoted.

For almost fifty years I've struggled against and puzzled over this second set of difficulties. I've come to believe that the way society treats its disabled members is a pretty good indication of its health and humanity. History contains examples of societies who've killed or abandoned disabled people; and there's also good evidence that some Neanderthal and Neolithic communities cared for and supported those unable to fend for themselves.

In particular, I've wondered about the treatment of people deemed to have cognitive or mental disabilities. At the College of Further Education where I worked for most of my career, there were separate courses for students with learning disabilities. I often used the on-campus cafe run by these students and, as I got to know some of them, I became interested in the factors that prescribed their lives. In one way, if they could bake delicious cakes, work as a Barista and take money, then what was the problem? On the other hand, I knew that what defined them as a group was their susceptibility to some of the more unscrupulous people and practices within our society. In a loving and supportive environment, these students might do very well. If cast adrift in broader society, many would quickly land in trouble. If that was correct, then in some ways, their disabilities were a social construct – increasing or diminishing according to what was happening outside the College.

The Rooney gang

In August 2017, I was intrigued by an item on the evening news. The Rooney gang – a Lincolnshire-based, Traveller family – had just been convicted of enslaving 18 men into hard labour. According to the report, a proportion of the victims were UK-born, making me wonder how on earth such a thing could have happened. Next morning's paper confirmed my worst suspicions. Whereas the BBC had merely described the victims as "vulnerable," The Guardian headline read, "UK Family Found Guilty of Enslaving Homeless and Disabled People."

The idea haunted me. Then, three weeks later, on a train ride between Doncaster and Newark, I met a young man called Chris. In our half-hour conversation, I heard about Chris's appalling upbringing in Burnley, his abusive and alcoholic mother, and the time he'd once "worked" for a "bad man" called John Rooney. When we reached Chris's stop, he asked to shake my hand and said "I can tell you're a good person – God bless you."

It was an extraordinary moment. Not only had I just met one of those victims whose stories had so recently disturbed me but from our conversation, I was convinced that Chris had a Learning Disability. Then, to top it off, there were his parting words. There was something pleasant – even seductive – about being told I was a "good person." But in truth, Chris had only been projecting onto me those qualities he was searching for in an older adult. As the train pulled out of Newark, I felt fearful about his future.

On 16 December, my article went up on the BBC website. By then, I'd spoken to numerous specialist agencies (including The Clewer Initiative) and was able to demonstrate a clear but frequently overlooked connection between disability and modern slavery.

Of course, gangmasters will target vulnerability wherever they can find it but I believe the exploitation of disabled people is a matter of particular concern, demanding some very specific changes to existing systems.

Lost in the statistics

Surprisingly, the National Referral Mechanism does not currently count victims with a disability (although it does count victims according to race and gender). For as long as disabled victims remain statistically hidden, they will not receive the additional funding necessary for their protection.

Another reason for focusing on disability has to do with the rehabilitation of victims. How can victims be properly rehabilitated and prevented from falling back into exploitation if their underlying disabilities and on-going support needs aren't understood?

Finally, strategies for preventing modern slavery need to take account of the targeting and grooming of people with disabilities. If we know that young disabled people are particularly at risk, then changes are required to our education and welfare systems. At school and college, young people with learning disabilities should receive instruction on what constitutes a genuine job, how to recognise grooming and when to contact the police. Furthermore, social services need to be more proactive in monitoring those disabled individuals not well supported by family or community.

Mike Lambert

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