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The Prime Minister has described modern slavery as the great human rights issue of our time and has said that her Government will lead the way in defeating it. In doing so, the Prime Minister is building on the work she did while Home Secretary when she introduced the Modern Slavery Act.

Yet, for many, modern slavery remains a difficult term to understand. The concept groups together a number of different crimes. It also difficult to understand the scale of the problem since the hidden nature of modern slavery makes it difficult to measure and monitor.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery is difficult to define because it takes a number of different and distinct forms. Victims of modern slavery include those that have been forced to work without pay; forced to commit criminal activities on behalf of their slave driver and against their will; sexually exploitedand those who are forced into domestic servitude.

Victims are often forced into ‘debt bondage’ where they are required to repay a sum of money owed to their trafficker. This debt bondage often exists because modern slaves are frequently trafficked into the UK and coerced and deceived into believing they will benefit from living and working in the UK. The victim of modern slavery therefore believes they have to repay the costs of being trafficked into the UK. Victims of modern slavery can, however, also be born or live in Britain before they become victims of modern slavery.

The scale of the problem

Modern slavery is a problem across the globe. Traffickers and victims often move regularly between countries which are the source of victims, countries which are used to transit victims, and the destination countries. This makes measuring modern slavery inherently difficult. However, some estimates of the total number of victims of modern slavery worldwide do exist. In 2015, the Global Slavery Index estimated there were over 45 million victims of slavery, while in 2013 the International Labour Organisation stated that victims of forced labour alone amounted to over 21 million individuals.
Estimating the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK is also difficult. Victims are almost always closely controlled and hidden from public view. Victims may also be to fearful to report the crime, and may be uncomfortable using the British legal system. Some victims of modern slavery, particularly children, may not perceive themselves to be victims. They may not really understand what is happening to them or could be obeying someone they consider to be an authority figure.

Despite these problems, there is one significant source of data on the scale and profile of modern slavery in the UK. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) provides a mechanism for organisations to refer potential victims of modern slavery. Organisations who can refer a potential victim include: the police, the Home Office, and various charities who regularly deal with vulnerable individuals. If an individual suspects someone is the victim of modern slavery then they can raise modern slavery concerns through these organisations. The NRM collects and records data on the individuals referred. It must be noted that not all individuals referred to the NRM are found to be victims of modern slavery. For example, between 2009 and 2013, 42% of individuals referred to the NRM were found to actually be a victim of modern slavery. The below figures therefore should be interpreted with caution.

Data from NRM shows that the number of potential victims of modern slavery is increasing in the UK. In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, 1,746 potential victims were referred to the NRM – a 47% increase on the previous year. This increase could be a result of increased modern slavery, increasing awareness and subsequent reporting of modern slavery, or a combination of the both. The Home Office believes that this figure is a significant underestimate of the prevalence of modern slavery. They believe that in 2013 there were between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK.

The forms of modern slavery

The NRM also provides useful data on the profile of modern slavery. Those referred to the NRM are predominantly female. In 2013, 64% of potential modern slavery victims were female. This figure has been stable since around 2011.

Victims of modern slavery are exploited for a number of different reasons. Sexual exploitation is the most common form of modern slavery. In 2013, 42% of potential victims of modern slavery reported experiencing sexual exploitation. Potential victims reported being forced into prostitution, escort work and pornography. Ninety-five percent of potential victims who reported sexual exploitation were female while 20% of all potential victims who reported sexual exploitation were children.

Labour exploitation is the second most common form of modern slavery in the UK. In 2013, 37% of potential victims reported this form of modern slavery. The Home Office states that victims are forced to work against their will. They frequently work for extremely long hours and receive little or no pay. Seventy two percent of potential victims who reported this form of modern slavery were male while 19% were children.

Domestic servitude makes up most of the remaining potential victims. Victims are used as household servants. They are required to carry out housework and domestic chores against their will, they receive little or no pay , and are often confined to the household.

Victims’ country of origin

In 2013, potential victims referred to the NRM came from 112 different countries. Forty seven percent of potential victims came from the five most common countries of origin. These were: Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania and the UK.

Countries tend to be associated with particular forms of modern slavery. For example, in 2013, the majority of potential victims from Albania, Nigeria and the UK referred to the NRM were women or girls who reported sexual exploitation, while the majority of potential victims from eastern and central European countries such as Romania and Poland were men reporting labour exploitation. Forty-two percent of potential victims from Vietnam were children and the majority of Vietnamese children reported labour exploitation.


Modern slavery is a complicated crime which is very difficult to measure. However, the evidence we do have suggests that there are a significant number of victims of modern slavery and this number is rising. The Modern Slavery Act consolidated previous offences relating to trafficking and slavery. It deals with the problem of modern slavery explicitly. The makes it the first first legislation of its kind in Europe. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister herself has argued more needs to be done to tackle this growing problem. The Prime Minister is likely to continue to pursue this problem throughout her time in office.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue