Modern slavery: would you spot the signs of the ‘unseen crime’?

Kate Garbers dispels the myths about modern slavery and explains how to recognise and act on the signs when someone is at risk

A lorry where suspected victims of trafficking were found. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock
A lorry where suspected victims of trafficking were found. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

By Kate Garbers, managing director, Unseen

Would you recognise modern slavery and be able to meet your duties under the Care Act and new Modern Slavery Act?

Modern slavery is more common than you may think. It affects more groups in society than might immediately come to mind. Someone is in slavery if they are forced to work – through mental or physical threat, bought and sold as ‘property’, or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement (see a full definition here).

Government estimates suggest there are as many as 13,000 victims of slavery and trafficking in the UK. By definition many of these victims are hidden, although last year figures from the National Crime Agency showed 3,266 victims coming forward and seeking assistance – a 40% increase from 2014.

Labour exploitation

Those seeking help in 2015 came from 102 different countries. The most common were Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria, Romania and UK nationals. The most common form of exploitation was labour and around half (53%) of victims were women.

Kate Garbers will be speaking about modern slavery at Community Care Live, sharing lessons from real cases and the voice of victims to explore how social workers can eecognise the signs, access support for victims and meet their legal responsibilities under the Care Act. Find out more

That of course means that just under half were men. One of the main myths around modern slavery is that the crime primarily affects women. Other widely held beliefs are that it’s an immigration issue or something that only impacts those who are poor and/or foreign.

But slavery happens to men, women and children of all ages, culture, education levels and spiritual beliefs. People’s dreams, desires and aspirations are taken advantage of, exploited and used to create a vicious cycle of debt bondage and fear.

Multi-faceted crime

Under the new Modern Slavery Act (2015) social workers and other professionals will be given statutory guidance on identifying and supporting victims. This is in addition to modern slavery being classified in the Care Act guidance as a category of abuse that those responsible for safeguarding adults must protect against. The obligations on public authorities need to be understood and a process put in place so that those on the frontline know what to do if they encounter a potential victim.

Are you aware of the different forms slavery can take and how it may present in your day-to-day work? And do know about the processes and resources available to support those who need it?

Starting points

One of the facets of modern slavery as a crime is that there are often multiple perpetrators. There is the person who arranges the transport, the one who harbours the individual, those who directly exploit, withhold wages, physically and mentally abuse people and the people who purchase those services. All of them are complicit, knowingly or otherwise, in the illicit trade of turning humans into items to be bought and sold, and exploited for profit.

Like many abuses of human rights, modern slavery can present in a variety of different ways. Lists of indicators and signs are a useful starting point, but they can’t definitively ascertain if someone is a victim or not.

Often a social worker’s gut feeling that something isn’t right, and needs further investigation by the right agency, can be as important.


Even when all the signs are present, we need to recognise and accept that victims may not always come forward. They may not trust us, have no understanding of their rights and entitlements. They may have concerns for their safety if they seek help, and that of those they love and care about.

Just because it is an opportune time for us to offer assistance and support, it doesn’t mean that it is the right time for them. It takes time to build trust and rapport with a potential victim as well as developing their understanding of the system and what they can access or be offered in terms of support.

Educating potential victims about their rights is important. We need to give them the information they need to make informed decisions about when and how they leave their exploitative situation. They also need to know what help and support is available to them when they do.

Tackling modern slavery is everyone’s business. It’s the unseen crime that is happening right under our noses.


One Response to Modern slavery: would you spot the signs of the ‘unseen crime’?

  1. JJ March 25, 2016 at 12:50 am #

    If the victim does not have any care and support needs, do social workers have a role? Obviously, if we have any suspicion of any type of crime we will have to inform the Police.