14 August 2020
It’s not just the migrant boats that we need to go after - Coronavirus has exposed extent of slavery in UK

In the last week, the sight of boats filled with migrants trying to cross the Channel has dominated the media, as have the Home Secretary’s legitimate efforts to stop them. Of course, she is right to want to ensure the rules are upheld and that migrants ask for asylum in the first country they arrive in. That is the clear position signed up to by France and other countries. But whatever the outcome of discussions with France, we are only scratching the surface of a much deeper and more troubling problem.

There is an enormous criminal sub-society thriving in the UK. A significant and well-organised network of gangs brings people into this country by different methods, including illegal passports.

But the gangs don’t just go away when the migrants land in the UK. Many migrants are then forced into slavery. From exploitation and abuse to benefit fraud and prostitution, around 100,000 people are estimated to be trapped in this dark world.

There are consequences for us all. It took a spike in Covid infections in Leicester, for example, to shine a light on the garment factories there. Factories continued to operate during lockdown to supply primarily online fashion retailers whose sales of often cheap, almost disposable, garments have increased dramatically.

People in these factories often live in squalid conditions, with anywhere from 10 to 30 people in one house, in some cases “hot bedding” while others are working in the factories.
Ironically, the fear of contracting Covid-19 briefly became bigger than the fear of reprisals from speaking out, and as some factory workers spoke to journalists and researchers, the scale of the problem became apparent. As the Centre for Social Justice’s special report – Parallel societies: slavery, exploitation and criminal subculture in Leicester – released today, shows, what has been created is a lawless state with corruption at every level – getting passports, immigration status, even false driving licences. Far too little has been done – and alongside these are benefit fraud, VAT evasion and money laundering, all opening the door to voter fraud.

Leicester is not unique – such abuse, exploitation and criminal behaviour are happening elsewhere here too.

The CSJ’s recent report, It Still Happens Here, uncovered a case in Leeds. West Yorkshire Trading Standards had begun an operation into illegal tobacco smuggling and sales. But behind the smuggling was a criminal network trafficking people. Human beings are simply another commodity for these criminals.

This criminal network is creating one of the pull factors that bring migrants to our shores. They used to smuggle drugs and alcohol, but now smuggle and exploit vulnerable migrants – a much lower risk. After all, a journey from Vietnam, for example, would cost a migrant £10,000 to £35,000 and, managed via social media channels, these trafficked individuals end up in this sub-society, in illegal factories, the sex trade and even growing cannabis.

We must act now. The scale of this is enormous and won’t be solved just by stopping the boats. We have to go after the criminals, no matter who they are and despite any cultural sensitivities, while rooting out corruption in official circles wherever it exists. Businesses that benefit must be held to account for their supply chains, too.

Yet perhaps the most difficult but important thing is for us to understand where the public demand for cheaper and cheaper garments and services is leading. It shouldn’t take a surge in Covid 19 to alert us to what has been going on. From now on, ignorance must no longer be an excuse.

First publish in The Telegraph