21st Century Slavery

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Slavery and trafficking are now the leading and most profitable international criminal enterprises, outstripping both drugs and fraud. Lewis Power QC and Ross Talbott explore the problem and the steps being taken against these crimes.

Today’s human rights abusers commonly hide behind entrenched cultural idiosyncrasy. Barbaric acts of stoning, the death penalty and child executions are said to have been carried out under the guise of cultural essentialism. Such arguments are even used to facilitate the rule of undemocratic regimes where parliament is powerless, the rule of law non-existent and corruption rife. With globalisation, the visibility of human rights abuses has increased worldwide due to escalation in cross-border economic, social and cultural activity. It is therefore vital that each and every nation or state claiming to respect the rule of law and human rights acts immediately to combat the colossal problem of contemporary slavery.


The “Palermo” Protocol of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime 2000 was a major stepping stone in providing guidance to assist countries to address modern slavery. It was supplemented by the United Nations Offi ce on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2009 by the Model Law against Traffi cking in Persons. The Model Law contains a series of mandatory and optional provisions which states are required to implement within their respective domestic legislative regimes.

The International Bar Association submitted recently at the Annual IBA Conference held in Boston (October 2013) that there should be fi ve basic steps implemented in order to assist the fight against slavery and human trafficking:

  • A uniform minimum law to punish the captors; including legislation allowing for the civil recovery of profi ts made from trafficking and slavery. This is to be associated with an expansion of the law with the introduction of tougher penalties and an increase in resources to help the victims of trafficking and slavery offences;
  • Education given to ‘first responders’ on how to recognise a victim at the point of initial contact with the relevant authority. Evidence has shown that most victims are deeply traumatised and are almost certain not to self-identify as a victim of trafficking or slavery;
  • The promulgation of business conduct standards promoting a zero tolerance approach to exploitation through trafficking and slavery;
  • To stress the need to ensure that every employee understands the problem of traffi cking and slavery and is able to recognise it and respond in an appropriate way. The suggestion is that this could be by way of several pages in an employment manual listing ways to identify victims and an anonymous telephone hotline to alert the authorities of the existence of victims of trafficking;
  • A national awareness campaign in order to combat the general ignorance of the regularity and severity of the problem of traffi cking and slavery in modern life.

 

It is clear that these basic steps, although a positive start, are not enough either to incorporate the Palermo Protocol into domestic legislation or make real inroads into the international  criminal epidemic that is trafficking and slavery.

Different nations have adopted, and will continue to adopt, varying legislative approaches to the incorporation of the Palermo Protocol into their domestic legislative regimes. Indeed, the Model Law anticipates the individualisation of implementation being a key factor in the eff ectiveness of such fundamental universal principles being incorporated into the legal frameworks of vastly diff erent and often contrasting cultures and societies. In India the offence of trafficking was enacted for the fi rst time in May 2013, punishable with life imprisonment.

In England and Wales, Parliament introduced the new offences of Holding a Person in Slavery or Servitude and Requiring a Person to Perform Forced or Compulsory Labour with the introduction of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Maximum penalties of 14 years imprisonment were prescribed in order to mark the severity of the off ences. These offences do not require the perpetrators to have moved their victims across borders or, indeed, at all. This new legislation recognises that whilst all human trafficking can properly be classified as modern-day slavery, a person can be held in slavery or servitude without the need for them to be trafficked. It is of course the case that the existing laws in respect of human trafficking continue to operate within the English jurisdiction in order to protect the victims of traffi cking in the conventional sense. This was pushed to the forefront of the national consciousness on 11 September 2011 when travellers’ sites in Leighton Buzzard, St Albans and Bristol were targeted by police in dawn raids resulting in hundreds of vulnerable individuals being “freed” from the hands of their alleged “slave masters” – the Connors family. Since those ground-breaking initial trials the issue of domestic slavery has featured constantly both in media and political discourse. In November 2013 the international media was shocked to hear details of three women freed from lives of alleged slavery following 30 years of being held in a house in Brixton, South London.

Whilst it is undoubtedly the case that any efforts to tackle the undeniable problems of domestic slavery should be encouraged, one must be careful to analyse fully the evidence produced as a result of these lengthy and complex investigations in order to ascertain the strength of these serious allegations. For example, huge evidential and practical difficulties arise for suspects in respect of allegations of Stockholm Syndrome and psychological conditioning. Within the Connors trials for example, if an alleged victim of slavery claimed to have been treated terribly then the Prosecution, unsurprisingly, used that as evidence that they had been treated terribly. However, if an alleged victim claimed that their treatment was not actually too bad at all, then the Prosecution claimed that they were not in a fit mental state to understand how bad their treatment was because they had been conditioned to not appreciate how bad it was. The difficulties in combating this circular argument are plain for all to see. The reliability of the evidence provided by alleged victims in domestic slavery cases is further complicated by the regular use of Reception Centres to house initially those liberated from their state as slaves or serfs. It is all too easy to see how the promise of back-dated benefits, priority housing and new clothing could easily influence the nature of the evidence provided by alleged victims. These are just some of the many and varied evidential issues and problems that practitioners will encounter more and more frequently as the number of slavery and servitude allegations continues to rise.

Slavery and trafficking are the leading and most profitable criminal enterprises in the world at the present time, outstripping drug and fraud offences on an international level on a massive scale. This has led to calls for a new Slavery Bill to become law in order to make an increase in prosecutions, according to Teresa May, “a top priority”. The Bill would introduce Trafficking Prevention Orders (think Sexual Prevention Orders for those convicted of Slavery and Trafficking offences with prohibitions on running companies, working with certain groups of people or in specified geographical locations) and the appointment of a Modern Slavery Commissioner to oversee the work undertaken by the National Crime Agency and the Police in fighting the problem. Surprisingly, there is also a suggestion within the Bill that existing crimes could be layered to create crimes “aggravated by Trafficking”. The necessity and practicality of that suggestion is up for debate.

Although the precise content of any new Slavery Bill may be uncertain, one thing we can be sure of is that as practitioners we all need to be aware of what is required when prosecuting or defending those charged with offences of slavery or servitude. We must all strive to ensure that justice is done in these undeniably intricate and serious cases. As Fredrick Douglass said in his speech on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. April 1886: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

Lewis Power QC and Ross Talbott, Lamb Building, London

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Ross Talbott

Ross, a member of Lamb Building, London, is a specialist junior in heavy-weight criminal allegations, particularly those with an international aspect.

Lewis Power QC

Lewis, Lamb Building, London, is a defence specialist in international and multi-jurisdictional organised crime. He is an associate member of Deans Court Chambers, Manchester and a member of the Northern Irish Bar.