Slavery in 21st Century Britain

Slavery in BritainThere are 27 Million slaves throughout the world. But before we, in Britain, point the finger we must ask why we tolerate 10,000 or more slaves in the United Kingdom today. We need stronger laws to rank human trafficking alongside kidnapping and murder. We also need more vigilance on the part of the police, officials, social workers and the public as a whole to spot the signs of workers in conditions of restricted liberty.

It is difficult to measure the number of people living in slavery today in Britain. Legal slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire 180 years ago. Slavery is now illegal and this is why it is not easy to estimate the numbers involved. But slavery certainly exists in various forms, A Home Office report says “There could be more than 10,000 slaves in Britain today”.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May said, “Slavery is all around us, hidden in plain sight“. Thousands of slaves are thought to work in cannabis farms, factories, building sites and farms as well as brothels, shops, nail bars and in domestic servitude.

Slavery in Britain throughout the ages

Slavery has existed for thousands of years in Britain.

Roman Empire

The economy of the Roman Empire’s presence in Britain depended heavily on the institution of slavery.

Norman Conquest

After the Norman conquest, the Doomsday book indicated that over 10% of England’s population were slaves.

Barbary Pirates

From the 16th to the 19th centuries it is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and Barbary Slave Traders and sold as slaves. Barbary pirates were based on the coast of North Africa. There are reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom and as far north as Iceland. They were abducted into slavery in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.


From the 17th century to the 19th century, workhouses took in people whose poverty left them no other alternative. They were employed under forced labour conditions.

African slaves

Slaves from Africa were first traded by the British in the 16th century. By the 18th century, the slave trade became a major economic mainstay for such cities as Bristol and Liverpool, engaged in the so-called “Triangular trade”. The ships set out from England, loaded with trade goods which were exchanged on the West African shores for slaves captured by local rulers from deeper inland. The slaves were transported through the infamous “middle passage” across the Atlantic, and were sold at considerable profit for labour in plantations. The ships were loaded with export crops and commodities, such as sugar and rum, the products of slave labour, and returned to England to sell the items at a profit.


William Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 that the institution finally was abolished in Britain and the British Empire.

Slavery is now illegal in Britain. as it is now in every country throughout the world. However there are probably more than 10,000 illegal slaves in Britain, and an estimated 27 million slaves in the world.

A BBC Report

According to a BBC report, the UK Human Trafficking Centre in 2012 identified 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking.

Of these potential victims, 778 were either found to have been trafficked or were awaiting a conclusive decision on their status. Of the 778 potential victims, 402 people – or 52% – were found to have been trafficked.

The top five nationalities of those identified were Romanian, Polish, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Hungarian. Some 71% of the potential victims were adults, while 24% were children.

The two most prevalent types of exploitation reported were sexual exploitation and labour exploitation.

Examples from the BBC report

  • Khan was jailed for 12 years for assaulting, raping and holding a woman prisoner after she was snatched from Slovakia and trafficked to Lancashire. Khan, 34, of Burnley, was said to have “bought” the vulnerable 20-year-old and “married” her at a local mosque to try to halt his deportation from the UK to Pakistan.
  • Imrich Bodor, Abdul Sabool Shinwary, Kristina Makunova and Petra Dzudzova – helped in the trafficking of the woman, who was unable to speak English or ask for help.
  • Ilyas and Tallat Ashar brought a deaf girl from Pakistan and kept her in their cellar.
  • A couple who trafficked a 10-year-old girl to the UK, then repeatedly raped and kept her as a servant for nearly a decade, were jailed.
  • Patience Asuquo, from Nigeria, was brought to London to work in the home of a solicitor, Kenny Gbaja. She said she was promised £50 a week as a nanny – but was instead subjected to verbal and physical abuse over a period of three years, and was not allowed to leave the house without permission.
  • Former hospital director Saeeda Khan was found guilty of trafficking a Tanzanian woman into the country to work as her domestic slave.
  • William Connors, 52, wife Mary, 48, their sons, John, 29, and James, 20, and son-in-law Miles Connors, 24, were convicted of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and March 2011 following a three-month trial at Bristol Crown Court.
  • Hungarian nationals Joszef Budai, 24, and Andrea Novak, 20, were jailed for eight years after being found guilty of trafficking young women into Britain and forcing them to work as sex slaves.

Enslaving vulnerable men

According to the Daily Mail, vulnerable men are snatched off Britain’s streets, kept in squalor, their benefits seized, and they are forced into hard labour. The men were deemed “vulnerable” and had been recruited at soup kitchens and off the street with the promise of paid work, food and lodgings. Take the case of John.

John’s Story

In a previous life, John was married. They say he once served in the Royal Navy; that was before mental health problems, exacerbated by alcohol, took hold.  John was vulnerable to exploitation, an easy target, and condemned to the kind of wretched existence that seems barely comprehensible in 21st-century Britain.

John’s ‘home’ was a freezing export container at the bottom of a garden. The garden belonged to a family and he belonged to them.They were his masters and he was their slave.

Often he could be heard howling like a dog. Indeed, he was treated worse than a dog. John, it is claimed, was never allowed inside the bungalow and his food — such as it was — would be handed to him at the back door. In return he worked.

After suffering a stroke he was no longer able to lay paving stones or tarmac so instead he fetched and carried. Sweeping the driveway was one of his main tasks, a duty he performed even in the pouring rain. ‘He limped and could barely walk,’ recalled one woman. ‘I also saw him picking lice off all parts of his body, so he could not have washed for months.’

The State benefits to which John was entitled, were paid directly into the bank account of his ‘masters’ who had told the authorities they were caring for him.

John was one of the wretches imprisoned in a camp in Bedfordshire which was raided by 200 police officers in 2011. It is alleged that victims were starved, beaten, and, in some cases, had their heads shaved, evoking memories of wartime concentration camps.

Hope for Justice

Hope for JusticeHope for Justice is an anti-human trafficking organisation working to uncover and abolish the hidden crime of modern-day slavery. As a non-governmental organisation (NGO) they gather intelligence and assist in the process of removing victims from exploitation within the UK. Human trafficking is not someone else’s problem, it’s happening in our communities, in our neighbourhoods, in our country. Hope for Justice was created to be the practical solution to human trafficking.

Edward’s Story

Trapped in forced labour

“I needed to earn enough money for my daughter for her school, and I heard about a good job in England. When we arrived they said we were going to work for good money, so we worked very hard for long hours to finish the job well. But when we finished, we never got paid. Instead we were locked up. They forced us to do more work and they would beat us and threaten us if we didn’t finish.

We couldn’t go anywhere because they took our passports, IDs and money. We were stuck. I felt hopeless, totally powerless. We would fix up houses, and do gardening. I had to move heavy things that I couldn’t even lift. I worked from the early morning until very, very late, seven days a week. All we were given was some tobacco, alcohol and bread and butter for the week.”

So that’s how we lived. “At this time, I knew I was a slave. I was sold from person to person, bartered for right in front of my face. I heard a man say I wasn’t even worth £300. I felt worthless. I wished that I could die – that it could all be behind. I thought of my daughter too. I had let her down so much. I felt shameful. I couldn’t find help anywhere.”

As well as undertaking proactive investigation, Hope for Justice trains frontline organisations like food banks and homeless shelters to spot the signs of trafficking. One of these organisations recognised Edward as a victim of trafficking and called in their  specialist team. Hope for Justice provided clean clothes, food and toiletries and entered Edward into safe-house accommodation to begin his recovery.

“I was very happy when I met with Hope for Justice. I knew someone was going to help me. Hope for Justice have been very good to me. I thought I was finished. I am so happy to be free, to be alive.”


The evil of modern-day slavery is that it exploits the most vulnerable members of society.

Immigrants. Ruthless and violent men take advantage of people seeking the best for their families. They make promises of profitable work in another country, but once there they hold on to their passports and enslave them, making them work for no reward.

Vulnerable girls. Criminals target girls who are in children’s homes or foster homes. Taking advantage of the juvenile’s seeking care, they introduce them to sexual exploitation, trapping them into a life where they have no freedom of choice.

‘Down-and-outs”. Vulnerable, homeless adults are targeted on the street, or at soup kitchens with promise of work and  accomodation. They are then made to work against their will and kept in atrocious conditions with no hope of escape. Their ‘masters’ not only get free labour but pocket any benefits the person is entitled to.

What can we do?

  • Support an organisation like Hope for Justice who work to free victims of trafficking and slavery.
  • Be vigilant. Is the person cleaning your car or doing your nails working under conditions of enforced labour?
  • Be aware of the situation and share your concerns with your family, your friends and your social media contacts.

Author: George Dowdell

I was the founder of Karuna Action (formerly Kingscare) and was the director for 24 years. I have now handed control over to younger people but continue as an advisor and trustee. My passion is to see extreme poverty eliminated and to see justice for the powerless.

4 thoughts on “Slavery in 21st Century Britain”

  1. George– excellent treatment of this subject–and it adds to the Kenya debacle that we are witnessing. Our own Sri Lanka tea workers find themselves in virtual slavery. Because of you-our Heidi ultimately freed many a soul from slavery of the heart as many have been won to Jesus.
    You would be so proud of Nathan– he is doing well at CFNI here- we see-and feed him nearly every week. we think of you often-read most of your blogs.
    Jim Yarbrough Dallas Texas


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