Modern Slavery on the Rise

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The UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) and its single market - with the free movement of people coming to an end in January 2021 − has led to a changing picture in relation to staffing for social care. 

Current immigration rules mean that entry and professional visa applications from the EU and the rest of the world are assessed against the same standards.  This, coupled with already significant shortages in social care staff, a very high reliance on EU and other international recruitment, as well as the impact of covid-19 has led to the UK looking to other countries to fill the substantial gaps in the social care market. 

But as explored below, international criminal organisations are now more able to manipulate the system, putting the safety and wellbeing of these immigrant workers in danger. This has led to the number of modern slavery cases reported within the UK care industry more than doubling in the past year. For example, between January and March 2023 there were 109 potential victims.

Investigators say the care industry is now a “top priority”.  The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority currently have 17 ongoing investigations in the care sector. UNSEEN, the Government approved anti-slavery helpline, says the rise in calls to them about the care sector in the past 12 months is because “the Government has made it easier for oversees social care staff to work in the UK post BREXIT”. For example, between March 2022 and March 2023, the Government issued 102,000 skilled worker health and care visas to foreign workers.

Given these harrowing statistics, it is even more important for those working within adult social care to be aware of and to be able to identify the signs of modern slavery.

Social care staffing issues  

It is suggested that 66,000 more full-time equivalent staff are now needed to fulfill demand (source:  Skills for Care estimated the average vacancy rate in 2022 at 10.5% of posts, or 165,000.

The UK has made migration from beyond the EU and EFTA easier. However, the new immigration rules mean the UK has access to a very different pool of staff from the European market.

The Government approved a recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to include care workers on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) on 24th December 2021.  This came into force on the 15 February 2022, enabling eligible care workers to apply for a health and care entry visa.  The minimum annual salary for inclusion on the SOL is £20,480.  Despite playing such a vital role in society, care workers are among the lowest paid workers in the UK.

The MAC has noted that the administrative costs associated with using the SOL are unmanageable for the many small and medium enterprises providing care. This has led them to rely on overseas “agencies” for recruitment.

Overseas recruitment agencies – the risks

Agencies oversees recruit care workers to work in the UK. They often arrange visas, transport, accommodation and even cars. They promise workers a job in the UK with a care company, therefore appearing to offer a better future for them and their family.

Once in the UK, however, the reality is often very different to the promises made.  Unscrupulous agencies abroad and care companies in the UK can take advantage of the vulnerable care workers. This could involve not paying them in accordance with the agreement made before they came, not honouring the promise of accommodation or cars, the threat that if they complain they will lose their job and their visa will be cancelled.

On top of this, according to the Home Office’s own data from 2021, a significant proportion of potential trafficking victims were forced to commit crimes. If convicted and sentenced to over 12 months, they can be barred from accessing support.

Human Rights Law

The UK became a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1953. Article 4 of the ECHR provides a right to be free from slavery or forced labour. This is an absolute right.  The ECHR was ratified into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force in 2000.  Public authorities must not act in any way that is incompatible with human rights and must protect, respect and fulfil peoples’ rights and freedoms.  This includes Article 4. 

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings is a Treaty signed by the UK on the 23rd March 2007, ratified on the 17th December 2008 and brought into force on the 1st April 2009. It covers all forms of trafficking and exploitation, including slavery and forced labour.  It defines trafficking of human beings“as a violation of human rights and an offence to the dignity and integrity of the human being.”

The Convention places responsibility on the UK Government to identify victims and assist them in their physical, psychological, and social recovery. It provides for a recovery and reflection period of at least 30 days where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person concerned is a victim of slavery. During this period, they cannot grant an expulsion order.  However, the Government are not bound to observe this period, on grounds of public order, or if it is found that the victim’s status is being claimed improperly.   

During the last United Nations Periodic Review in 2017, the UK was applauded for “its leadership on human trafficking and modern slavery”. This was due to the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the introduction of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM)- a framework for identifying and protecting victims of trafficking.   

Illegal Migration Act 2023

However, six years later the context looks very different. 

The Home Office has taken the modern slavery brief away from Sarah Dines MP the Minister for Safeguarding, and given it to the Rt Honourable Robert Jenrick MP, the Minister for Immigration and Asylum. This means that modern slavery has been re-classified as an issue of immigration and asylum rather than safeguarding, making it even harder for victims to be identified. Survivors of modern slavery cannot be protected unless they are identified, and their cases understood.

The Illegal Migration Act 2023, which received Royal Assent on the 20th July 2023, implemented significant changes to the immigration law. It allows the UK to disqualify certain referrals made by those arriving in the UK illegally who are identified as potential victims of modern slavery. These disqualifications are legal if applied before the 30 day “recovery and reflection period” on the grounds of public order or “alleged abuse of the system”. This means that they will be detained and then promptly removed, either to their home country or a “safe third country” (i.e., Rwanda). 

The Home Office, pointing to “alleged abuses in the system” and the introduction of the Removal Programme to Rwanda, could mean that victims may be very reluctant to come forward to be identified for fear of being targeted for removal from the UK. In fact, traffickers are likely to use this to persuade their victims not to go to the police or other authorities.

Conflating illegal immigration with modern slavery is undoubtedly dangerous.

National Referral Mechanism  

If they are lucky, some workers might be identified by social services as being victims of modern slavery and referred to the NRM.

Once placed inside the NRM system, social services have a duty to provide accommodation and support if there are reasonable grounds to prove they are a victim of modern slavery.  However, victims often report considerable difficulties in accessing the services they are entitled to, leading to destitution. 

In 2022 there were almost 17,000 victims referred to the NRM.  Although there is a team of people working on investigations, prosecuting cases is difficult, and cases take on average between 339 and 553 days to get to “conclusive grounds”.   

Around 90% of people who have been through the NRM are given “conclusive grounds” status, confirming that they are a victim of slavery. This contradicts the link the Government has made between modern slavery and illegal immigration.  

The Home Office crackdown on ‘’bogus claims’’

The Home Office also presented a huge obstacle for modern slavery victims by demanding they prove they are victims by submitting police or medical reports. Between April and June, only 48 per cent of people received an initial positive decision on their case – a dramatic fall from the 90 per cent approval rate in previous years.

This tough criterion has since been softened after a legal challenge, forcing the government to admit that their actions were unlawful. However, charities are concerned that the damage has already been done with over 3,318 receiving a negative finding.


Modern slavery has not gone away.  In fact, the number of potential victims referred to the NRM has risen from 2,340 in 2014 to 10,613 in 2020.  Modern slavery is a complex, harmful, and largely hidden crime. Without the identification of adult victims, it will remain hidden, and many more workers and their families will suffer.

Author: Sue Inker 

This article was first published on 11 September 2023