Modern slavery is a growing but hidden problem within the UK, with the care sector having been singled out as being a cause for real concern. BBC File on 4 ,“Finding Freedom, The Fight Against Modern Slavery” has obtained troubling figures from the Government’s approved anti-slavery charity helpline, ‘Unseen’ which are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. These show that the number of modern slavery cases reported within the UK care industry has more than doubled in the past year. There were 109 potential victims, exploited for personal or financial gain, between January and March – twice as many as in the same period in 2022.

The evidence suggests that this is another of those so-called unintended consequences of Brexit. A recent report by The Nuffield Trust showed that shutting down access to a ready supply of skilled EU staff has put additional pressure on a health and care system that was already buckling under the strain of its recruitment needs.  

In the year to March, the government issued 102,000 skilled worker, health and care visas to foreign workers – that’s up a massive 171% on the previous year. As the supply chain gets bigger, there’s more chance for exploitation, says the charity.

These are the statistics; the reality of the lives of people who have been and are being trafficked in this way are rarely heard. Most remain in hiding, terrified of the consequences of speaking out. The File on 4 documentary managed to speak to one young woman who had been recruited by one of the UK care home providers in her home in Africa. She was told she could also bring her mother to care for her three children. She was promised accommodation, a car and a salary of £29,000 per annum. The reality was that she ended up working excessively long hours for a salary of £2 per hour. The salary was so low that she was unable to pay the rent, so, while she worked nights, her mother and three children slept on the streets. They were spotted by a member of the public, and the mother was reported to social services. When they asked to see her rota, they were shocked. “This is too much, this is insane,” she says they told her. The mother is now seeking asylum in the UK – and until a decision is made she isn’t allowed to work..

Of course, the care home sector isn’t the only area where there are problems. Modern slavery has infiltrated several employment sectors – including construction and car washes.

The total number of potential victims referred to the Home Office through the National Referral Mechanism in 2022 was almost 17,000 – the highest number ever recorded.

“Victims of modern slavery are extremely vulnerable,” says Sara Thornton, the former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. “They will be in terror of the people who’ve trafficked or enslaved them, who will tell them there’s no point going to the police, the local authority, or a charity because they won’t support you.”

If things are bad now, the fact that the draconian ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ – passed into law last week – will make it even harder to support vulnerable victims. The same government that hides behind the cloak of wanting to stop small boat traffickers, as an excuse for its relentless attacks on people seeking sanctuary, are happy to give modern slavery traders a free pass. The new law will allow the government to legally detain and remove all people who irregularly enter the UK. The fact that Theresa May felt the need to lead a revolt against the bill is an indication of just how low this government has stooped. She accused the Government of consigning more people to slavery if it went ahead with its plans without any changes.

Although the names of the care home providers implicated in the modern slavery scandal haven’t been released, it is fair to say that they are most probably charging residents fees that range from £27,000 to £39,000 per annum for residential care, increasing to £35,000 to £55,000 if nursing care is required.

Private sector involvement in the long-term care market began in the 1980s. It was one of the first targets for outsourcing of public services to the private sector. Local councils have now almost totally withdrawn from a market they used to dominate. Maybe it could be argued that modern slavery is the unintended consequence of the wholesale privatisation of essential services. For many though, the writing was on the wall at the time. The desire for excessive profits was always going to put both staff and residents at risk. Perhaps we have to concede though, and nobody could have guessed this at the time, that one of these risks would take the form of modern slavery.

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