‘Modern Slavery’ is the term used to describe the conditions under which the three women, rescued from a home in south London, toiled in servitude for the last 30 years. Yet, as a stunned public tries to make sense of how servitude of this intensity could thrive for three decades undetected in the most modern of cities, there are many who confess they are not surprised.
Several U.K.-based organisations and individuals have long sounded the alarm over the existence and growth of a multiplicity of forms of modern servitude. For them, the Lambeth incident is the dreadful realisation of a possible worst-case.
“Of course I am not surprised,” said Usha Sood, a barrister who heads Trent Chambers, a lawyers firm that specialises in human rights cases. “We see a fair number of such cases on a regular basis.”
“We were shocked and appalled by yesterday’s case, but we know this is not an isolated case,” said Ross Reid, a spokesperson for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).
In March this year, the CSJ released a report based on a two-year study titled “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to Fight Modern Slavery”. The report examines the forms and incidence of modern slavery in the U.K., with recommendations on how it can be tackled.
India-born Virendra Sharma, Labour Member of Parliament for Ealing Southall, has also seen cases that are similar to the Lambeth case, if not as enduring.
Describing human trafficking as “a major concern” in Britain today, Mr Sharma confessed to being particularly alarmed that this case of domestic servitude took so long to come to the surface.
Mr. Sharma argues that it is the rich who bring in people to work as domestics. “They do not know the language, what their rights are, and who to contact when in trouble. And the employers keep their passports.” He recommends that foreign missions in the U.K. conduct briefing sessions with those who come on work visas on workplace rights.
What prevents victims of even the most flagrant abuse from reaching out for help, especially within an environment where public opinion expresses is firmly and visibly on their side? The three Lambeth women ultimately took courage from a telecast and called the helpline provided. But it took 30 years for them to gather the strength to do so, a searing comment on the fear that kept them in bondage. In less-abusive cases, victims may not even be aware of their near-slave status.
The Lambeth women will have some of the answers. Their story can only be slowly coaxed out of them given their fragile and disturbed condition, say caseworkers at the charity that is caring for them.
“Modern slavery is tragic and very complex,” said Mr. Reid.
“In our study we found that people are enslaved for a number of reasons, and that each case is different. It does not have to do with levels of formal education. We have come across many intelligent people who have been manipulated into slavery.”
At the heart of the unequal relationship that modern slavery embodies is the abject disempowerment of the victim, argues Ms. Sood. “Subjugation takes many forms and people underestimate its ability to disenfranchise them. There is a great deal of fear, which is connected with duress and emotional blackmail.”
The CSJ study dispels some myths about modern slavery, for example that trafficking takes place only for sexual exploitation, or that people are only trafficked into the U.K. from outside its borders. “People are trafficked into and around the U.K. and forced into lives of utter degradation, said Mr. Reid, adding that there is little accurate information on its scale. “Last year there were more than 1000 identified cases. But that is just the tip of an ugly iceberg.”
The main recommendation of the CSJ’s report was for the government to enact a Modern Slavery Act. “We applaud the fact that the government has agreed to do so,” said Mr. Reid.
In the wake of the Lambeth case, Home Secretary Theresa May reiterated that the Modern Slavery Bill would be presented soon in Parliament. For this complex offence, where victims are often too terrified to testify for fear of their employers and the threat of being deported, the government has promised to streamline the system of detection and punishment.