October
18
2018
Author
Natalie Williams
The slaves on my street

Earlier this year I travelled 6,000 miles to meet victims of human trafficking, only to find out a couple of weeks later that I could’ve walked just 60 yards, to the end of my street in the southeast of England, to find people trapped in slavery.

It’s shocking, but it’s true. I’d just returned from a harrowing trip to Cambodia to see the incredible work of IJM to tackle labour trafficking there, when I discovered the very same thing was happening right on my doorstep.

I had travelled to Cambodia with anti-slavery charity IJM, in connection with my work locally on slavery. In a modest church in a rural village near Siem Reap, I had listened with horror as two male survivors talked about their time as slaves. Both had been lured into the Thai fishing industry with promises of lucrative pay. Both travelled in good faith, wanting to provide for their families. Both were then enslaved.

One of these men didn’t see land for over six years. He was transferred from boat to boat, each one with no sanitation and no bedding. In his first few days, he witnessed the captain slit another slave’s throat – a stark warning of what would happen if he caused any trouble.

During shifts that lasted for two nights and three days, he was beaten with metal rods if he fell asleep. He had come hoping to earn enough to send his children to school. Instead, he had no way to contact them or his wife for over six years. They thought he was dead. He thought he would die.

Many of us might imagine that this kind of slavery only takes place in far-flung foreign lands. But it’s happening on our shores too. Since I started chairing the Hastings Anti-Trafficking Hub on behalf of King’s Church in Hastings three years ago, more than 300 people caught up in slavery have been identified across my town and the neighbouring district alone.

I have known for a long time that slavery is a reality in communities across the UK including my own. But I had no inkling it was quite so close to home until I chaperoned the press on a police raid to rescue victims and discovered that a house just a few doors down from my flat was ‘home’ to almost a dozen victims of slavery.

Their stories, like many of the victims of slavery I have come across in Hastings, were similar to those of the Cambodian men. These men and women had been lured over to the UK from Eastern Europe by the false promise of jobs that would pay enough for them to support their families.

But once they arrived, their ID was taken from them and they were sent to work long shifts in nail bars, car washes, restaurants, brothels, and even care homes. Often in such cases their employers don’t know they’re enslaved, because they work through an agency. But the agency bosses take the vast majority of their income, telling them they need to pay off some previously unspecified debt they now owe.

Today is International Anti-Slavery Day, but please don’t let the word ‘international’ lead you to believe this is only happening elsewhere. It’s happening here too. It’s happening in our towns and cities. On my street. Maybe on yours too.

It’s hard to spot, but there are signs you can look out for, such as houses that have a lot of people coming and going, and seem to have more adults spending the night there than is usual.

It’s estimated there are over 40 million slaves in the world today. Thousands are enslaved here in the UK.

They are my neighbours. And they’re probably yours too.

If you see something suspicious, please call the Modern Slavery Helpline: 08000 121 700.

At this year’s national Jubilee+ conference there will be exhibitors with information about how you can tackle modern slavery. Book here: 

https://jubilee-plus.org/events/33/churches-that-change-communities-2018