Modern Slavery Bill must go further

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 03 September 2014

Centuries after the slave trade was abolished in Britain, modern day slavery continues. Many workers, often migrants, are still forced into labour while others profit from their exploitation.

True to reforming British politician William Wilberforce’s legacy, our Human Rights Act is at the centre of efforts to end slavery. Article 4 of the Convention on Human Rights, enshrined in the HRA, requires the Government to protect people from the trade in human misery and support victims. As the Prime Minister has stressed, modern slavery is a “vicious abuse of human rights”. It has no place in our society – that’s why Article 4 is one of the HRA’s few “absolute” rights.

The Government has demonstrated an intention to go further in fulfilling its HRA obligations to eradicate slavery and protect victims via its Modern Slavery Bill, which is at Committee stage in the Commons this week. The legislation is a positive first step, but must go further to address ongoing gaps in protection.

The restrictive Domestic Overseas Worker Visa introduced in 2012, which prohibits individuals from changing their employer, has led to increased exploitation of domestic workers – just as the Government was warned. Tied visas are common in regimes with shameful human rights records. If the Home Secretary is to be true to her commitment to eliminating slavery and violence against women, the Bill must allow overseas domestic workers to escape exploitation and abuse by changing their employer.

We’re also gravely concerned about the National Referral Mechanism, the process used to identify trafficking victims and which acts as a gateway to support. The NRM is currently under review and at the very least, “competent authority status” must be removed from UK Visas and Immigration – an agency with a clear conflict of interest, given its responsibility for assessing immigration applications. A coherent system for reconsideration and appeal, allowing people to challenge decisions properly, should also be introduced.

Modern slavery victims have also been hit hard by civil legal aid cuts, meaning even limited help in immigration and employment matters is unavailable. And the residence test, recently found by the High Court to be “discriminatory” but awaiting a Government appeal, may prevent access to legal aid for those few matters which remain in scope. That’s why we firmly support the Draft Modern Slavery Bill Committee’s call for legal aid to be extended to slavery victims in civil matters.

In 2008 Liberty represented Patience Asuquo, who escaped an abusive employer after being held in servitude only to be confronted with a disinterested police force, refusing to consider her allegations. Using the Human Rights Act, we forced them to investigate. Following Patience’s battle for justice, we and Anti-Slavery International successfully campaigned for a new criminal offence of holding another in slavery or servitude, which came into force in 2010.

This legislation builds upon that success. A fully-realised Modern Slavery Bill, with proper protection for all, is now the very least that Patience, and the many other victims like her, deserves.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager