Modern slavery: the neoliberal UK model

by Mick Wilkinson

Despite having ratified a range of international conventions prohibiting forced labour and modern slavery, and committing to protect their victims, successive UK governments have failed to adequately meet their responsibilities in these regards.

That is in part because a cross-party political obsession with market ‘flexibility’ has created the conditions in which such abuses flourish and in part because the machinery of labour standards enforcement has been allowed to wither on the vine. 

Undocumented migrant workers are particularly, though not exclusively, vulnerable. As the ex-Director General of Immigration Enforcement told the HOC Home Affairs Committee in October 2017, “There's probably over a million foreigners here illegally at the moment.”

They are forced to live an ‘underground’ existence and are vulnerable to appalling exploitation, forced labour and worse, their irregular status and twilight existence rendering them outside of the protection of labour-related enforcement agencies. Indeed, since 2010 the government’s emphasis on tackling illegal migration and working runs counter to, and impedes their protection.


Forced labour exists across the UK, it is widespread and increasing, perpetrated by criminal gangs, unscrupulous gangmasters and employment agencies, who operate almost with impunity within a de-regulated labour market and a light-touch enforcement regime.  This has been evident for at least a decade.

In 2006 Anti-Slavery International’s seminal Trafficking for Forced Labour: UK Country Report uncovered forced labour in ‘agriculture, construction, domestic work, food processing and packaging, care/nursing, hospitality and the restaurant trade,’ relating how people were trafficked and ‘forced to work in motorway services, as casual labour in ports, doing laundry and in nail parlours’ and made to engage in ‘illicit  activities such as shoplifting, pick-pocketing and the sale of pirate CDs and DVDs on the street.’ (1)

Victims are recruited across the globe with promises of agency work, work in the hospitality sector, modelling, etc. More recently, forced labour has been uncovered in the car wash trade and in UK fishing fleets and children have been trafficked to work in cannabis farms and the sex trade by bogus scouts for Premiership football teams. Perpetrators are constantly changing their modus operandi to remain beyond the machinery of enforcement.

Conditions for those in forced labour are appalling – research in to the activities of UK gangmasters (2) found physical and sexual abuse to be endemic, alongside racism, threats to individuals and to their families. Victims describe being in a constant state of helplessness and fear, unable to access health and welfare facilities, and some were suffering from mental health difficulties. They were often living in conditions that Environmental Health officers described as ‘an accident waiting to happen’, with sometimes a dozen workers living in 2 or 3 bedroomed houses, with inadequate fire protections, others have been uncovered in roof crawl spaces, in cramped caravans, in animal pens, even locked in factories overnight.


Some employment agencies insist on periods of unpaid probation work, non-payment or underpayment of wages is routine, as is the taking of outlandish and illegal charges from wages. Agencies employ a range of threats against those refusing to work extended shifts or in unsafe conditions. It is important to note that these are not the activities of a ‘few bad apples’ – such practices are endemic across the temporary labour market and they are hidden within a labour market environment that is awash with worker exploitation. (3)

Since the early 1990s, when John Major’s government abolished agency licensing, and the UK became one of the least regulated labour markets in Europe, the number of gangmasters (estimated at 10,000+) and private employment agencies in the UK has proliferated. This trend continues apace - since January 2012, the recruitment industry has seen a three-fold increase in the total number of registered UK agencies, now sitting at a record high number of 27,788.

The labour market has become increasingly casualised and ‘flexible’ to the point that the UK currently has more temporary workers than any other European country. This was not accidental, since 1979 governments of all complexions have actively reshaped the conditions of employment to that end. It is most evident in the widespread outsourcing of short-term contracts to the point that 80% of UK employers now subcontract parts of their business.

Successive re-tendering of contracts further reduces employment standards and the security of workers. These conditions, combined with a concerted assault on the ability of trade unions to mobilise sent a message out to employers that traditional worker protections could be circumvented almost at will, certainly in the non-unionised workplace – and much of the temporary labour market was, and remains, non-unionised.

New Labour did little to halt the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms and conditions. As Employment Minister, from 2002 onwards, Alan Johnson made it a personal mission to resist the EUs Temporary Agency Workers Directive on the grounds that ‘there may be a danger that an equal treatment requirement would impose administrative burdens that discourage the use of agency workers.’

It wasn’t until 2010 that the UK signed up to limited rights for agency workers on equal pay.  Another contributory factor was New Labour’s move to encourage the flow of temporary migration to the UK by expanding the existing temporary worker schemes and adding new programmes, so that the number of work permits issued to foreign born workers rose from 40,000 a year in the mid-1990s to over 200,000 a year in 2004. By 2011, the number of non-UK nationals in employment stood at 2.56 million, an approximate rise of 1 million on the 1998 figure. This sent out a clear message that the UK government was prepared to tolerate if not encourage worker exploitation.


Meanwhile, prominent government figures – Prime Minister Blair, ministers Blears, Woolas and Reid - colluded with the tabloids to generate a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants, accusing them of  ‘jumping the queue’ for  council houses and seeking to “steal our benefits, steal our services like the NHS and undermine the minimum wage.”  (4)

From 2008, New Labour’s civil penalty regime imposed significant fines on those employing the undocumented, thus pushing them further down the food chain in to the hands of the very worst of exploiters. At the same time, Blair’s much repeated mantra of ‘bogus’ and illegal asylum seekers served to legitimate a ‘culture of denial’ at the Home Office, (5) rendering hundreds of thousands whose applications were rejected with no recourse to social welfare and so at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. (Independent Asylum Commission, 2007)

New Labour’s commitment to unfettered markets made them slow to tackle the growing evidence of modern slavery. Eventually, in response to a groundswell of public pressure following the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking tragedy of 2004, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) was established.  However, its remit was limited to those suppling labour for agriculture, forestry, horticulture, shellfish gathering and food processing and packaging, so that workers in other sectors where exploitation was rife, including in construction, care, and hotels, hospitality and cleaning, were left to the care and protection of the all-but redundant Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.

There followed, in 2006, the much-trumpeted opening of the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield. As with the GLA, however, it ran to a shoe-string budget, and whilst it produced some effective, if short-lived, public education campaigns and provided occasional training packages to police and immigration officers, it had no powers to instruct individual police forces or immigration facilities to prioritise the search for victims of modern slavery. This was a serious omission, given that to this day it fails to be an operational priority for front-line officers of either agency and given that by August 2017, Will Kerr, the National Crime Agency’s Director of Vulnerabilities was estimating the numbers of contemporary slaves in the UK to be in to the tens of thousands, as he explained “The more we look for modern slavery the more we find evidence of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable. The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone had previously thought.”

That should actually surprise no-one, because Conservative-led governments since 2010 have unleashed a perfect storm of social and economic measures that are forcing an ever-increasing number of the most marginalised – including British nationals -  into the hands of the exploiters. The intensification of the neo-liberal economic model has variously involved benefit caps, benefit sanctions, the huge and rapid growth of zero hours contracts and the gig economy. These have combined to create a vast pool of ‘the new precariat’ at the tail end of the labour force. 

In addition, the ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants begun under New Labour has been ratcheted up continuously since 2010. Alongside the dog whistle politics of the appalling “Go home or face arrest” billboard vans, Prime Minister Cameron announced that the wages of illegal workers could be confiscated as the proceeds of crime, the threat of civil penalties for employers was increased from £10,000 to £20,000 for each undocumented migrant employed, new duties were imposed on banks to check the immigration status of their customers, and private landlords, their tenants. This hardly generated an environment in which undocumented migrants might be encouraged to come forward and identify their exploiters to the authorities.

As for enforcement, for all Theresa May’s assertion that tackling modern slavery was a government priority, successive administrations since 2010 have neutered the response of the most relevant agencies. The Conservatives’ ‘red tape challenge’ and their assiduous adherence to the 2005 Hampton Review recommendations to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses, has seen a huge reduction in labour-related inspections. Alongside that, the police and immigration services have been subjected to extensive and disruptive reorganisations, with approximately 20,000 police officers lost and equally swathing cuts made to Border Agency staff. Both services have also seen huge funding cuts. Meanwhile, whilst the GLA (Now the GLAA) by a country mile the most effective of the labour standards agencies, is no longer limited to agriculture and fisheries, its resources have been only slightly increased, which might leave the cynic to wonder if the agency is being deliberately set up to fail. 

Seemingly oblivious to the collective impact of these measures on tackling modern slavery, in 2014, as Home Secretary, Theresa May announced the appointment of Kevin Hyland as the UK's first ever Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to ensure “that modern slavery issues are tackled in a coordinated and effective manner across the whole of the UK.”  Thus far his role has tended towards that of a critical friend, pointing out inadequacies but having little authority to rectify them.  Unfortunately, the government’s economic, social and immigration policies were not considered part of his remit.  May followed this with a Modern Slavery Act 2015, that she proudly cites in parliamentary debates as evidence of her proactive approach, but which is innocuous to the point of embarrassment.

The then Director of Anti-Slavery International termed it ‘a modest little bill, with much to be modest about.’  At its core is the much-vaunted section 54, requiring commercial organisations with a turnover of £36m and above to publish a statement setting out what steps they have taken to ensure that modern slavery is not occurring in their business or supply chains. Thus far, no sanctions are attached and recent studies suggest that lip service is being paid to the requirement.


Enforcement outcomes to-date have been pitiful. In 2010, Labour MP Emma Reynolds asserted in the 2010 Parliamentary debate on Trafficking: “With our country’s pitiful rate of conviction for trafficking, all too often such gangs and pimps enjoy impunity.  There is still not enough being done to help and to protect the victim.”  Precious little has changed. In February 2017, on the publication of a joint report with the Chief Inspector of Borders & Immigration, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner announced that there was “a strong chance we are missing thousands of victims of modern slavery at our borders.” In October, he gave account to Parliament of a “chronic weakness” in police responses, that was allowing organised crime groups behind people trafficking and slavery to “act with impunity”.  In December, the National Audit Office report on the overall governance of the UK response to modern slavery related: ‘The Home Office has an incomplete picture of the crime, the victims and the perpetrators. Accountabilities within the strategy are unclear, oversight of victims’ support is inadequate and few cases lead to prosecution or conviction.’ It continued: ‘Until the government is able to establish effective oversight of the modern slavery system as a whole it will not be able to achieve its objective of significantly reducing the prevalence of modern slavery.’  In April 2018, a Times newspaper investigation (6) revealed that only 6% of crimes recorded by police forces under the Modern Slavery Act had led to charges. The West Midlands force had recorded 295 offences in two years, but these had resulted in only 4 charges being brought – let alone convictions! 

There is also a considerable body of research affirming that public awareness campaigns are having little impact on the ability of front-line workers across the statutory and voluntary sectors to identify and appropriately report on modern slavery indicators. For instance, many police forces continue to demonstrate insufficient understanding of the nature and scale of modern slavery and human trafficking (7) whilst 87% of NHS professionals report lacking the knowledge to identify victims. (8) A range of different local authority services, from children’s services and migrant integration teams, to housing and environmental health officers, have sometimes contributed to the identification of modern slavery, in the era of austerity budget constraints, their capacity to so do is has been significantly compromised.


These findings reflect badly on the government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. There is an inevitability to them, because operational responses predicated on the mantra that exploitation is an aberration -  the product of a limited number of bad labour providers refusing to abide by the rules -  are doomed to failure. The reality is that exploitation is widespread and embedded precisely because the rules of the game, the UK’s neoliberal model, encourage and facilitate it.

So how can modern slavery in the UK be tackled and eradicated? The neoliberal framework created the malaise, if it is to be tackled, that framework needs to be progressively dismantled. Private employment agencies and gangmasters add precious little to the productive capacity of the nation, they are essentially exploitative and should be phased out in favour of state-run labour exchanges.

Zero hours should be abolished, decent labour standards strictly and proactively enforced. It is not acceptable that a vast pool of undocumented labour be left on the margins of society at the mercy of criminal exploiters.  There should be a one-off amnesty that enables them both to join the regular workforce and to identify their exploiters to the authorities. Social policies that force people into exploitative labour – for instance, benefit caps and benefit sanctions - should be abolished.  Root and branch reform of the asylum process is an essential.  Last, but not least, the trade unions must be encouraged back in to every employment sector, every workplace – none are more attuned to the indicators of labour exploitation, none more dedicated to its eradication.

Just a short time ago, such measures would have appeared unrealistic. Public attitudes are rapidly changing. There is growing anger at labour exploitation, particularly of the young, at the never-ending revelations of business impropriety, of corporate and political negligence (Grenfell), and, with the fallout from the Windrush scandal still upon us, at the appalling treatment of migrants. The door is ajar, a future progressive government should have the confidence to push through it.


  1. Skrivankova, K. 2006, p1
  2. Wilkinson, M.  et al, Forced labour in the UK and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, 2010.
  3. Hard Work, Hidden Lives, TUC Commission on Vulnerable Employment, 2008
  4. Mulvey, G.  When policy creates Politics: the Problematizing of Immigration and the Consequences for Refugee Integration in the UK. Oxford Journals Online, 2010
  5. Souter, J.  A Culture of Disbelief or Denial? Critiquing Refugee Status Determination in the UK.
  6. Yeung, P. et al, Child slave gangs go free as police ‘fail to investigate’. The Times (online)  20 April, 2018
  7. HMICFRS, Stolen freedom: the policing response to modern slavery and human trafficking, 2017
  8. NHS Protect, Provider Responses Treatment and Care for Trafficked People, 2016


Anti-Slavery International (1839 - ) is the successor organisation to the Anti-Slavery Society which was founded in 1823 to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.

" unions must be encouraged back into every employment sector, every workplace - none are more attuned to the indicators of labour exploitation, none more dedicated to its eradication."

Tony Blair, one of the founders of New Labour