Parosha Chandran: Modern slavery in the UK is not confined to one place in the Midlands

The exploitation of workers and Covid-19 spike in Leicester’s factories should be a ‘wake-up call’ for the rest of the country, says trafficking expert.

As a human rights barrister and world-leading expert on human trafficking, Parosha Chandran knows the depths and darkness of abuse that can occur, especially when freedoms are taken away.

So she is not surprised that a study this month calculated there are 100,000 victims of modern slavery in Britain. “The thing about slavery is that it’s a vastly hidden crime,” she says. “There are control mechanisms that are used very effectively by enslavers and traffickers to keep people quiet and to make victims fear going forward to the authorities to ask for help.”

Garment and food factories in Leicester, where as many as 10,000 mostly immigrant workers are reportedly paid as little as £3 an hour in some cases and have been forced to work with no protective equipment, have contributed to a spike in Covid-19 cases and the second lockdown in the city. “I think this is an example of the type of exploitation that has been going on up and down the country during Covid,” she says.

Chandran hopes this serves as a wake-up call. “If that’s the estimate of what’s happening in Leicester, then what’s happening in Birmingham? Or Nottinghamshire? Or Manchester? Or London? [Modern slavery] is not just confined to one place in the Midlands. It’s going on everywhere, therefore there needs to be a robust response to it.

“Whenever we learn about cases where extremely low wages have been paid during Covid-19, one needs to investigate what the power relationship was between the employer and the employee and whether or not the workers were forced to come into work, regardless of the risks and their safety during lockdown.”

She says victims are often made to wrongly believe they had a hand in their own fate. “In legal terms, consent is irrelevant where a person was deceived, forced, threatened or coerced, but of course victims don’t know that, so it’s really critical that there are trained officials who are able to identify victims, wherever they may be found.” That could be an immigration raid, a workplace inspection, detection by the police or even cases where a GP has a patient who they suspect might be a victim of exploitation.

Despite it being a criminal offence to use someone for forced labour, “the police have not been mobilised quickly enough in these cases,” Chandran says. “By the time inspectors go in – if there’s a lapse of time – all of the workers will have been threatened not to say anything to anyone coming in. What needs to happen is a swift response.”

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Chandran worries that the pandemic has provided more opportunities to abuse or exploit children. “It’s really creating a perfect storm of conditions.”

A recent report by the National Youth Agency said drug gangs were using lockdown as cover for a “recruitment drive” for children. “You’ve got cases of children who are just going out and ending up being exploited because they’re identifiable as being isolated,” says Chandran. “They’ve left a home – family or residential – and so then they can be targeted easily by traffickers and exploiters.”

Chandran, 50, has worked tirelessly to ensure that both the law and police understand the vulnerability of exploited individuals who are sometimes forced to commit crimes.

A landmark case that she won at the court of appeal in England in 2013 established that children and adults forced into cultivating cannabis in the UK should be recognised as victims of modern slavery rather than be prosecuted as criminals. It’s a lesson she believes is highly applicable to county lines.

“It’s really important to make sure there is a consistent approach by all law enforcement to treat those children and vulnerable adults as victims and witnesses, whether or not they feel safe enough to give evidence,” she says.

She calls lockdown the “most excruciatingly difficult time of my life”, because in addition to juggling the needs of her 11 year-old son and concern for her elderly mother, Chandran was laid low for the first few weeks with a suspected case of the virus.

Despite this, anti-slavery work has continued to pour in and she’s spent the last week finishing a draft of a new anti-slavery bill for Uganda, in her role as senior legal adviser for the British parliament’s modern slavery project, directed at assisting Commonwealth states. Uganda has “the first modern slavery bill in the world that directly criminalises labour recruitment companies for human trafficking and forced labour,” she says.

In comparison, she says, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 in the UK was written with an eye on criminalising the acts not of companies or corporations but rather individuals.

Lockdown and restrictions put in place due to Covid-19 also give Chandran great concern for victims of domestic servitude around the world, a crime she says is notoriously difficult to identify. “I’ve done cases where people have been hidden for years.”

She believes the public can be a catalyst for change. “Social awareness plays a massive part,” she says. She points to car washes where customers were seeing people who may have been maltreated or abused and turning a blind eye to it because they wouldn’t know what to do. “But as soon as light was shone on the prospect that their cars might have been cleaned by people who are enslaved and that there was a helpline number that they could ring, the public took it into their own hands to mobilise themselves.” Public reporting led to numerous investigations, which uncovered a vast number of car washes that used enslaved or trafficked workers, she adds.

Chandran was born in a mining town in Nottinghamshire to a Tamil Hindu father from northern Sri Lanka and a Pakistani Muslim mother from northern Pakistan, who were both doctors. After qualifying as a barrister and devoting her practice to human rights, in 2015she was presented with the Trafficking in Persons Hero award by John Kerry, the US secretary of state at the time, leading to her being dubbed the “anti-slavery hero”.

Chandran believes the Black Lives Matter movement offers an important opportunity to educate young people about modern slavery in Britain, and she wants to create a programme on modern slavery for schools that can highlight the dangers and increase social awareness.

“The education of children is extremely important, so [they] can be aware of what is going on [with modern slavery] in Britain and can be aware of the risks, including who they might turn to if they or a friend get into a situation of difficulty.

“With trafficking and modern slavery, particularly of children, we always need to be one step ahead of the abusers, so we need to continuously and carefully understand how they abuse, who they abuse and then cut off the supply.”

Curriculum vitae
Age: 50.

Family: Single, one son.

Lives: Hammersmith, London.

Education: Nottingham girls’ high school; University of London (law degree); International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg (diploma in international and comparative human rights and humanitarian law); University College London (law master’s); Inns of Court School of Law (bar vocational course).

Career: 2019-present: independent adviser on orphanage trafficking, Lumos Foundation; 2018-present: professor of modern slavery law, King’s College London; 2017-present: senior legal adviser, British parliament’s CPA UK Modern Slavery Project; 2012-present: trafficking expert, the Council of Europe and the United Nations; 1997-present: practising barrister, Bar of England and Wales; 2013-18: trafficking expert, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; 2013-15: independent adviser, modern slavery bill and the exploitation bills of Scotland and Northern Ireland; 1999: Office of the Prosecutor, UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, The Hague; 1997-8: independent adviser on the human rights bill, the lord chancellor’s department; 1997: human rights research consultant, King’s College London.

Public life: 2014-present: independent adviser on child trafficking, Unicef UK; 2007-17: independent legal adviser to Anti-Slavery International.

Interests: Cooking, swimming, music and dancing.

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