England & Wales, Global, Scotland Communities and society, Welfare and equalities

Modern slavery and the role of local government


Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

What is modern slavery?

Anti-slavery International, who blogged for us this week,  defines modern slavery as “when an individual is exploited by others, for personal or commercial gain. Whether tricked, coerced, or forced, they lose their freedom. This includes but is not limited to human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage.” 

Estimates vary on how many people are living in slavery. Walk Free, a Non Governmental Agency that focuses on modern slavery compiles a global index of the number of people impacted and a qualitative assessment of national government response. The UK government, for example, estimates around 10,000 people are ‘at risk’, but according to Walk Free’s numbers it may be as high as 136,000 living in modern slavery. The discrepancy is no doubt partly definitional, but also linked to the difficulty of counting people who are being illegally exploited and may also have their own reasons for living in the shadows – related to the nature of their work or immigration status. Either way, the number appears to be rising.

Global Local bulletin: Human trafficking and modern-day slavery


Crises begetting crises

The war in Ukraine, alongside worsening climate news has ushered in the looming challenge of a migration crisis and with it, the potential for cases of human trafficking and instances modern slavery to rise astronomically. Considered a “crisis within a crisis”, conflicts and huge upheavals can trigger individuals and families to flee, in disrupted and unsafe conditions. During these periods, people are often vulnerable and at risk of being exploited in their search for safety and security. Desperate, separated from loved ones or coerced with lies and deceit, victims may be taken in by offers of safety and security, which fail to materialise. Understanding that victims of modern slavery have often fled their home nations and faced violence and persecution is integral to providing supportive and caring services at contact.

In comparison, worsening climate change can also trigger unsafe migration; sudden events like flooding or earthquakes force people to flee in panicked conditions, and slow onset events such as drought and crop failure lead people to seek economic security and new livelihoods. Both these scenarios engender migrations of vulnerable people who are at-risk of modern slavery.

How does this lead to unseen victims?

While conflict and mass upheaval make migration and the risks of human trafficking apparent, there are also millions of victims who fall victim to modern slavery daily and go unseen. Olympic athlete Mo Farah recently revealed that as a child he was trafficked from his home country of Djibouti and forced to work in domestic servitude.

How can councils tackle such a challenging issue?

While the UK Home Office remains without an anti-slavery commissioner, andthe number of potential victims of trafficking hit record levels in 2022, it is essential that local governments consider their role in this ongoing humanitarian crisis. When considering the enormity of the challenge that is modern slavery, it can become overwhelming and tempting to become defeatist, however on the ground, local councils are well positioned to uncover community instances of modern slavery and help support victims through joined up service provision.

Local government, by the nature and breadth of its work, touches the lives of many people and there may be many opportunities to spot suspected cases.  From social services to the licensing and inspection of premises where exploited people may work or even the regular routines of parking inspectors and street cleaners or the surgeries of ward councillors, local government employees or representatives could encounter victims or perpetrators of modern slavery and need help to learn how to spot it and what to do with that information afterwards.

This week’s Global Local bulletin focuses on modern slavery and the role of local government in prevention, detection and support for victims. We welcome your feedback on this important issue and the opportunity to collect and share resources and information going forward.


This post was written by Louise Honeybul and Ingrid Koehler


One thought on “Modern slavery and the role of local government

  1. Being conscripted into the Australian army in 1967 was in fact slavery.
    On the very first morning on arriving at Puckpunual army camp, the Sargent addresses us with these words.
    We own you,we can do whatever we like with you, and there is nothing you can do about it.

    That happened here in Australia in 1967 and I was then sent to Vietnam in 1968 in an infantry battalion in a war that I did not want to be involved in, to kill fellow human beings, spending 365 days there.
    We conscripts had no choice, that’s slavery.

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