In Jan 2011, I met a soft-spoken Vietnamese teenager under the railway lines at London Bridge station, while making an investigative documentary for Al-Jazeera English. As waves of commuters rushed past, over a coffee Tuan* recounted a story to me that seemed scarcely possible to believe. In fact, many in positions of power had not believed him, and for that, he had to pay the ultimate price for his crime - imprisonment, the threat of deportation, and a permanent criminal record.
So what was his crime? He had been trafficked into one of the thousands of cannabis factories found in the UK each year and held by debt bondage as a "gardener" for a large criminal network. He was poached in Vietnam, trafficked through Russia and the Ukraine, driven in cars by day, marched through forests by night, and smuggled in the backs of lorries to come to the UK. Nearly a year later, he found himself working alone in a locked house turned cannabis factory. He was 15 at the time, with no family, no money, and little English. His age and impoverished background not only made him vulnerable to predatory gangs posing as legitimate agents, but also made him easily exploitable and expendable. He came to the UK in the hope of achieving a better life - instead he found himself deliberately criminalised on the black market. Worse still, his trauma was not over once the factory was raided: his story, the story he told me, was met cynically by the authorities. Instead of recognising that his experience fit a pattern of sophisticated trafficking networks, the prosecutors accused him of fabricating his story. Instead of providing a package of physical and psychological support, he was thrown into a cell.
As a journalist investigating not only the spike in cannabis factories but also the prosecutions of those found working in them, I was one of the few who believed him, and who was prepared to tell his story. Since then, the print and broadcast news have been awash with stories like these. Yet back in 2010, many had not heard of cannabis factories. Still others did not want that story to be told. When I enquired about the extent of trafficking victims possibly being held mistakenly in UK prisons, the authorities told me no such persons existed. Yet many people, off the record, told me that the problem of children working in cannabis factories was rife. Evidence of young Vietnamese disappearing from care was growing. I had threats, warnings, and a lot of leads that went cold. Yet in the end, Tuan was the first person that had been trafficked into a cannabis factory to agree to appear on film in the UK, and his story, under the assurance of anonymity, got told.
Tuan was not the first person found under complex forced labour conditions in Britain's black market, nor would he be the last. The business of human trafficking is just that: big business. It is opportunistic, demand-driven, high-profit, and low-risk, with networks far-reaching and deeply underground. It can all too easily infiltrate legitimate supply chains, slip discreetly into the grey market, or disappear without trace. According to the International Labour Organization, this commodification of humans generates 32 billion US dollars in profits each year, while 8.1 million people lose an estimated 21 billion US dollars in lost wages through labour exploitation alone. Its revenue bolsters black economies, abets organized crime, traumatizes victims, and raises complex questions on criminality and human rights violations in national and international law.
There is mounting evidence that vulnerable migrant workers face a significant threat of labour exploitation in the UK. Men, women, teenagers, and children are all vulnerable, and found in sectors such as construction, care, agriculture, domestic labour, and the hospitality industry. Some industries are covered by regulatory practices put in place by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, but there are calls to increase the scope of regulation. Forced labour is also rife in the black economy where illegal work, including drug cultivation, illegal DVD selling and fraud occur. Yet despite a growing awareness of the problem, there is a palpable lack of coordinated responses by both the government and civil society groups, the reasons being multiple, political, and complex: law enforcement bodies must track down an invisible population working for a shadowy underworld within a black market; social services must struggle to protect vulnerable groups in the wake of cutbacks to legal and administrative aid; and the judiciary must determine between the intentional criminal violating borders and the exploited individual seeking redress. Meanwhile, criminal networks are becoming more sophisticated, victims are forced deeper underground, and the contracting economy means the UK government is too apt to view the issue through the lens of immigration law rather than through one of human rights.
Yet greater awareness and a broader dialogue on the business of human trafficking may begin to change that. There has been a push to absorb the Transparency in Supply Chains Bill into Theresa May's new Modern Slavery Bill, and this Thursday, The Foundation for Law, Justice and Society, in association with the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford, will host a workshop entitled The Business of Traffic in Humans to bring together academics, policymakers, and practitioners to discuss the issue. Frank Field MP, chair of the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Modern Slavery Bill, will join experts from the European Parliament and Council of Europe, alongside law enforcement and civil society groups to discuss policies and legislation best fit to tackle the business of human trafficking. Using the context of the UK Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, participants will debate the limitations of businesses to self-regulate against exploitation, the benefits of incentivizing for compliance, and ways to practice due diligence in the business workplace.
Tuan found himself trapped in the net of illegal work immediately upon his arrival into the UK, but it would be just as easy for desperate workers to slip from legitimate employment into something more covert and illicit. As long as there remains demand for cheap labour in legitimate British industries, without proper regulation and safeguarding, there will be shoes to fill it. The problem of forced labour and human trafficking may not be solved overnight, but greater awareness could increase the risks faced by the illicit trade while lessening their profits - and that's bad for any business.
*name has been changed to protect anonymity