The COVID-19 pandemic means new dangers are facing those kept in slavery and servitude and could have serious impacts on modern slavery in the UK.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, those of us working in the modern slavery arena have had many discussions about its impact on those enslaved and in exploitation. As the time has passed it has become clear that County Lines are still prevalent, that sex work has tended to go online and that abuse within locked down households has risen (which will inevitably affect those in domestic servitude). In addition, our linked dioceses have reported exploited individuals from car washes discarded and forced to seek help from food banks, triggering referrals to the Modern Slavery Helpline.
What does ‘We See You’ mean when we are, in the main, confined to our houses and able to do very little ‘seeing’. Our Clewer team and a small group of our diocesan project leads have been reflecting on this and on how we might most effectively continue our work within this present crisis.
Many of you will have seen our Car Wash App: after 20,000 downloads we have been working towards a refresh of the App to remove some of its less satisfactory features. The developers’ time was booked for April – just as the lockdown hit and car washes were closed. So, we decided to redirect our efforts into the development of a Rural App, both to help the recognition of good practise and also to expose exploitation in the agricultural and food production sector in the UK.
We want to support our farmers and food producers to run businesses that do not unwittingly enable modern slavery. A recent industry day on rural exploitation heard from a senior figure in the food industry that constant vigilance is necessary, not only by the employer but also by employees, to ensure that perpetrators do not trick employers into employing enslaved and exploited labour.
The majority of us may be unaware most of the crops produced within this country are picked by migrant workforces. Already facing difficulties around employment of seasonal agricultural labour from abroad (due to Brexit) further restrictions on the international movement of labour due to COVID-19 has produced an unfilled shortage of 55,000 seasonal labourers. Planes are now being chartered to bring in Romanian workers to fill some of these gaps.
Previous work has shown that it is often unskilled workers who are targeted by perpetrators of modern slavery and then groomed to appear freely ready for work, whilst in reality they are exploited labour.
The signs to look for are subtle, ranging from a misplaced full stop on a forged visa, a worker who appears to have no activity at weekends, a razor hidden high up in a work shower. These signs have been described by the agricultural labour providers themselves as ‘the absence of normal’. All employed labourers as well as their employers need to know what is normal and what to look for as an indication of exploitation. More crucially, they need to know what to do about it. The Rural App will provide information and guidance to enable this.
This App will be developed in partnership with various statutory and non-statutory organisations. The reports will be triaged by the Modern Slavery Helpline and passed to enforcement agencies when it deems necessary. We anticipate it will available in the early summer and will help those in agricultural and food production services to say ‘We See You’.