Article 4: No slavery or forced labour

Posted by Sabina Frediani on 07 September 2011

In the 21st century the term ‘slavery’ is most commonly associated with William Wilberforce, the reforming British politician who lobbied for the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago. But for many, far from being the stuff of history books and Hollywood films, slavery in modern Britain is a frightening reality.

Many vulnerable workers, often migrants, are forced into compulsory work for little or no wages and effectively prevented from escaping.

Article 4 of the Human Rights Act provides protection against slavery and forced labour. Contrary to popular belief, this is one of the Act’s few absolute rights. Most other rights and freedoms have limits, to ensure we also protect the rights of others, but a few can never be limited. Slavery and forced labour (when a person doesn’t voluntarily consent to work but does so because of physical or psychological threats) is never justified, under any circumstances. To address another myth, this absolute prohibition doesn’t include lawful work required of prisoners or military service.

The State is under obligation to ensure there are laws protecting people from slavery, servitude and forced labour – including having anti-trafficking legislation in place and making it illegal to subject someone to such practices. The State also has to investigate any allegations of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour.

Incredibly, until last year it wasn’t actually a criminal offence in this country to hold another person in slavery or servitude. Thanks in part to lobbying by Liberty, using Article 4, such modern day slavery was finally outlawed.

Our fight began in 2008 when we represented a young woman called Patience Asuquo. She had escaped her abusive employer after being held as a slave, only to be confronted by disinterested police refusing to consider her allegations. Using the Human Rights Act, Liberty forced officers to investigate and Patience’s employer was eventually prosecuted – but not for slavery or forced servitude, because these still weren’t offences under English law. It was therefore clear there was an urgent need to outlaw modern day slavery. In June 2009, together with Anti-Slavery International, Liberty lobbied for the creation of a new offence to do just that, and Baroness Young of Hornsey laid an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill. Following pressure from parliamentarians, lawyers, trade unions and the general public, the Government conceded and the new offence was brought into law.

In August this year, we saw one of the first convictions under this new legislation that we campaigned so hard for. True to Wilberforce’s legacy, the Human Rights Act is making the end of slavery and forced labour in the UK today a reality.


WATCH OUR COMMON VALUES VIDEO: Patience Asuquo shares her experience of using Article 4 of the Human Rights Act to make a disinterested police force investigate after she was subjected to forced domestic labour and abused by her employer for more than two-and-a-half years

  • For more information on 'no slavery or forced labour', visit our Article 4 page on the Liberty website;
  • Find out more about Patience Asuquo and forced labour here
  • Respond here to the Government's Commission on whether we need a British Bill of Rights - and tell them that we've already got one called the Human Rights Act.