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Opinion

The invisible chains

Forced labour is thriving in the UK and the resulting trauma suffered by survivors leaves a lasting, indelible impact.

Last updated: 06 Dec 2013 12:17
Mei-Ling McNamara

Mei-Ling McNamara is a journalist and documentary filmmaker working on issues of human rights and social justice. Her film for Al Jazeera English, Children of the Cannabis Trade, highlighted the criminalisation of Vietnamese trafficking victims in the British justice system.
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Three women were rescued after 30 years in captivity in a London flat [EPA]

For Tuan*, the realisation came in the middle of the night. They dragged a man into the room, chained him to a chair, and brutally beat him while Tuan was forced to watch. That was when he knew they were capable of harming him, or worse. From that point on he lived in fear, watering cannabis plants inside a shuttered house on a non-descript street in England. At 16 years of age, with no papers, no local language, and a debt stretching all the way back to Vietnam, the chains he found himself tethered by were both insidious and invisible.

When Ahmed* asked his employer to be paid the wages promised to him back in Bangladesh, as a professional chef in a British hotel, his boss grabbed a pot of boiling oil, held it close to Ahmed's face, then smashed it against the wall, missing him by inches. Over the course of weeks and months, incidences of violence, threats of deportation and escalating intimidation forced Ahmed to submit helplessly to his fate, and his debt bondage in an isolated hotel in the Scottish Highlands.

Not isolated cases

These methods of exacting violence are deliberate tools often used by gangs, traffickers, pimps and perpetrators of forced labour. Psychological control, paired with repeated incidences of trauma, creates a complex tangle of fear, power and control between victim and perpetrator that is only now being recognised more readily in UK slavery cases. The recent case of three women found after 30 years of captivity in a south London flat is a testament to this. The police described the women as being held by "invisible chains" and "highly traumatised". Unprovoked violence, threats of violence, and forcing victims to witness violence, are all part of the psychological armoury used by criminals to achieve vast amounts of control with minimal effort. It is why people do not walk out of unlocked doors, or why they refuse to identify their trafficker. It is also why people return to them after they have escaped.

In the last decade, Britain has become a destination state for traffickers and a fertile ground for forced labour practices.

In 2010, while working on a documentary for Al Jazeera English on forced labour in Britain's black market drug trade, and now filming a new documentary on the subject again, I have heard harrowing tales such as this first hand. Sitting across a table from Tuan, the young, soft-spoken Vietnamese man who witnessed torture and beatings inside a cannabis factory, and speaking with Ahmed, who has moments of blankness and terror where his memory should be, it is evident that they bear the hallmarks of those who have lived through something both exploitative and traumatic. Though the terms are not synonymous, it is not uncommon to find the existence of one inevitably intertwined with the other.

State of forced labour

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are more than 12 million people enslaved in the world today, more than there has ever been at any one time in human history. Nearly every country is affected and few societies are spared. Forced labour bolsters black economies, abets organised crime, traumatises victims and raises complex questions on criminality and human rights violations in national and international law. Every year, 8 million people lose $21bn in wages through labour exploitation alone.

In the last decade, Britain has become a destination state for traffickers and a fertile ground for forced labour practices. It has seen a dramatic rise in trans-national criminal gangs targeting the most impoverished, vulnerable and frequently "invisible" migrant populations who provide cheap labour for Britain's industries. Anti-Slavery International estimates that 5,000 people are being trafficked at any given time for labour servitude into the UK. Victims also remain targets for criminalisation - by the gangs that exploit them and the authorities that seek their removal. Since 2006, seven people have been prosecuted in Britain for labour trafficking crimes, and 15 were charged under forced labour and servitude laws. Yet no victims have received compensation in UK employment courts. Much more common are the arrests, convictions and deportations of the workers themselves. These migrants inevitably inhabit a twilight existence - and their testimonies, often marred by psychological trauma, are challenged by an institutional climate of disbelief within the British justice system.

Trauma, exploitation and justice

It is with this in mind that the assessment and management of trauma in the cases of human trafficking and forced labour is not only critical for justice to be served against the perpetrators, it is crucial for the long-term health of survivors. Evidence-based research has shown that it is often aspects of psychological control, compounded with the resulting trauma of experience, that remain with the survivor longest. Yet the bureaucratic framework in Britain by which testimonies are assessed and referred for credibility, and the timeframe for which the potential victims have to speak through their trauma and reconfigure their position in the constellation of abuse, raises questions of agency, control and criminalisation.

Forced labour is a hidden, secret crime. It occurs inside high walls, behind locked doors, beneath the noses of ordinary citizens.

Tuan and Ahmed did not get rescued from their situation, as you might expect. When the police raided the cannabis factory, Tuan was placed in a youth detention prison for 11 months before authorities discovered he had been trafficked. In prison, he received a stream of ominous letters from the criminal gang, threatening his life if he testified against them. When a local discovered Ahmed's situation, she went to half a dozen agencies, including the police, who said they could not be of help. It was not until she contacted an independent aid worker that Ahmed and his co-workers received assistance. All the while, the trafficker hired a private detective to track them down where they might be hiding in Britain. None of the men have ever received counseling for their ordeal. The situation faced by these men is exemplary of the large-scale labour exploitation of migrants in Europe who often have no access to justice and no meaningful recourse to crimes against them.

New protection needed

Forced labour is a hidden, secret crime. It occurs inside high walls, behind locked doors, beneath the noses of ordinary citizens. In response, the government has promised more robust legislation, such as a modern slavery bill, to combat the problem. Yet, in the same breath, increasingly stringent immigration laws, such as the domestic worker visa scheme where workers are tied to their employers and are unable to change jobs, create a perfect climate ripe for exploitation. As a consequence, forced labour victims occupy an ambiguous position in British society, problematic casualties of the contradiction between government policies and practices. They live in a constant state of fear from arrest, threats from traffickers and debt-lenders, and an absence of sympathetic understanding from the wider public.

Slavery, and to a large extent, forced labour, is symptomatic of a wider global problem: the push for cheaper products and services that diminishes the value of human capital, infiltrates our supply chains and chokes our industries. Until we address some of the roots of demand, criminal enterprises will continue to grow, more workers will fall prey to restrictive immigration laws, and forced labour will continue to flourish.

*Names have been changed to protect sources.

Mei-Ling McNamara is a journalist and documentary filmmaker working on issues of human rights and social justice. Her film for Al Jazeera English, Children of the Cannabis Trade, highlighted the criminalisation of Vietnamese trafficking victims in the British justice system, and was awarded the Human Trafficking Foundation Award in 2011. She is based in Edinburgh.

Follow Mei-Ling McNamara on Twitter: @MLMcNamara

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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