The criminal offence of modern slavery

This post was contributed by Ms Charlotte Crilly, Teaching Fellow and Module Convenor for Undergraduate Laws.

What do you know about the criminal law on modern slavery? The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner defines modern slavery as

‘a serious crime in which individuals are exploited for little or no pay. Exploitation includes, but is not limited to, sexual exploitation, forced or bonded labour, forced criminality, domestic servitude and the removal of organs’.

In the UK last year there were a total of 6,993 recorded victims of modern slavery, which was a 36% increase from the previous year. The national police lead for modern slavery and human trafficking has said recently that there has been an increase in the criminal exploitation of children to its highest level in modern times, largely driven by exploitation of children by drugs gangs.

Slavery, human trafficking.

Modern slavery has also been in the news in the context of the government’s proposed new immigration rules post-Brexit. Charities have voiced concerns that the new rules could lead to an increase in modern slavery.  Under the government’s immigration proposals, only skilled workers will be able to settle in the UK, and there are fears that this could lead to an increased black market for low-paid workers that will be exploited by criminals.

There are a number of international conventions that govern the law on modern slavery, including:

  • UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, specifically the Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons (the Palermo Protocol), which was ratified by the UK on 6 February 2006.
  • Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, in force from 1 April 2009.
  • EU Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combatting trafficking in human beings. This has had direct effect from 6 April 2013.

The European Court of Human Rights held in Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia (2010) 51 EHHR 1, that Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights required effective means be in place in states parties to the Convention to provide practical and effective protection of the rights of victims of trafficking.

The offence of modern slavery is governed in domestic English law by the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Act consolidates and clarifies the two substantive offences of (1) slavery and (2) human trafficking.

  • Under section 1, a person commits an offence if they hold another person in slavery or servitude, or if they require another person to perform forced or compulsory labour, and that person knows or ought to know that the other person is being held in slavery or servitude, or is being required to perform forced or compulsory labour. This is to be construed in accordance with Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of slavery and forced labour).
  • Under section 2, a person commits an offence if they arrange or facilitate the travel of another person with a view to that person being exploited. Exploitation is further defined in section 3. It includes slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour by reference to the offence under section 1, as well as other forms of exploitation.

There is a defence under section 45 for slavery or trafficking victims who commit an offence because they are compelled to do so as a consequence of their trafficking or slavery situation. This is intended to protect victims of modern slavery so they are not penalised for crimes they were forced to commit. In January 2020, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (established by Part 4 of the Modern Slavery Act) called for evidence on the use of the section 45 statutory defence, amid concerns about cases where  victims of modern slavery have not used this defence and have been imprisoned, and cases where criminals have attempted to abuse the defence. 

The Modern Slavery Act introduced a number of developments (of which the criminal provisions are only one part) to tackling the growing problem of slavery. In your opinion, will the criminal law provisions be effective in making a change in combating modern slavery in the UK?

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