Observer column: 01 November 2019
The tragic death of 39 people found in a refrigerated container in Essex last week has shocked all of us. The treatment of human life in such a way, where criminal gangs reduce their victims to a tradable commodity, is something that should horrify everyone. This terrible crime of people trafficking and modern slavery affects us all. And it's happening right here, in Hastings.
Last week, Hastings Council unanimously agreed a resolution circulated to all councils by the Co-Operative Party, to sign up to a charter to guard against modern slavery wherever we can. This means, in particular, using the council's procurement policy to require all contractors to state their compliance with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, as well as requiring them to have a whistle-blowing policy that allows employees to expose suspected cases of modern slavery. Unusually low tenders submitted to the council will also be investigated. Around 120 councils have supported this charter, so far.
Across the country, the government estimated in 2014 that 10,000 - 13,000 people were being forced to work as modern slaves across the UK. All agencies agree that the number is likely to have grown significantly. It's not difficult to see how people fall victim to people trafficking and modern slavery. For those in a war zone, or at risk of starvation, or threatened by oppressive regimes, the escape offered by international criminal gangs must seem worth the risk, either from the journey itself or from the life of slavery they're forced to endure when they get here.
But this is a crime that affects our own, local community. Last year, five people were arrested in Hastings on charges of modern slavery, following an operation that included council licensing staff, the police and trading standards. At least eight people were identified as being held at a Hastings property as modern slaves, who had been forced to work in businesses in Hastings and the surrounding area. Earlier this year, a people trafficking gang was jailed that included two Hastings residents.
So it's not just the council that needs to be vigilant about modern slavery - we all do. The businesses most commonly using modern slaves include illegal activities such as cannabis farms and the sex trade, but also includes seemingly legitimate businesses - in particular car washes, nail bars, builders, and fisheries. That's not to suggest that such businesses must be using slaves, most are legitimate and properly paying the minimum wage. And the fishery in Hastings certainly isn't involved - it's some of the bigger trawlers that have been found to be using slave labour, not the under ten metre fleet.
But we know that modern slaves have been employed in Hastings, and still are. Every time we have our cars washed, or go to a nail bar, or have some minor building work done, we all need to consider whether that business can realistically make a profit at the prices it's charging, if it's paying its workers the minimum wage. And if you're at all suspicious about any business or service you've used, you can find out how to report it on the Hastings Council or Sussex Police websites.
Modern slavery and people trafficking, with its inevitable terrible consequences, is something none of us should tolerate. We must all do whatever we can to ensure this growing trade is curtailed and eventually eliminated.
Council Leader's column