‘Widespread ignorance among social workers about modern slavery’

Call for more rigorous professional training to tackle significant problem of people being trafficked for forced labour or sexual exploitation.

Picture credit: Image Broker/Rex Features
Picture credit: Image Broker/Rex Features

There is “widespread ignorance” among social workers about the significant problem of human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour, a report warns today.

Much more rigorous training of professionals is needed to better identify and support victims of “modern slavery”, said the study by the Centre for Social Justice. An inquiry by the think-tank found a “litany of cases” of adults and children being trafficked into the UK and subjected to forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced criminality, such as benefit fraud or pick-pocketing.

The report said that victims were often subjected to prosecution for immigration or other offences; among cases, it cited one of a woman who fled from a brothel where she had been enslaved to a police station, where she was arrested as an illegal immigrant for not having a passport. It also said that they often did not recognise themselves as victims.

To tackle this frontline staff, including social workers in children’s services, needed to be aware of the signs of abuse and know how to seek support for victims. However, the report warned that many social workers were not able to identify victims; for instance, they did not see children being involved in benefit fraud as being exploited.

It found poor awareness among social workers about the National Referral Mechanism, the national framework for identifying victims of trafficking and providing them with appropriate support. Under this system, local authorities are “first responders”, whose role is to identify victims and refer them to the UK Border Agency or UK Human Trafficking Centre.

The report said it was a “shocking fact” that modern slavery and human trafficking did not feature on the curriculum for the social work degree, while qualified practitioners in children’s services only received “ad hoc, infrequent and unmonitored training”.

The report also said that the trafficking of British girls for sexual exploitation accounted for a significant number of cases; however, in these cases, victims were often seen as complicit in their exploitation.

“This is absurd and unacceptable,” said the report. “Elements  of control in these cases can be subtle and difficult to identify; this control frequently takes the form of sexual and other forms of violence, physical or emotional abuse, threates of violence towards family members or threates of public shaming.” 

Recommendations from the report included:-

  • Trainee social workers should be taught about the risks of child trafficking in the UK as part of their qualification, and existing social workers should be trained effectively through an agreed programme. This training should form part of social workers’ continued professional development;
  • The College of Social Work should be aware of the gap in training on trafficking for social workers, and should recommend that it be added to the curriculum for
    student social workers;
  • Training should be given to local authority Emergency Duty Teams on the risks and processes for a trafficked child, in recognition that trafficking does not take place only during working hours;
  • Appointing an anti-slavery commissioner – modelled on the children’s commissioner – to hold government to account on actions to tackle the problem;
  • Establishing a new Modern Slavery Act to ensure victims do not face the threat of prosecution and are encouraged to report abuse and seek help from welfare agencies;

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