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Human Trafficking Could Soar in Britain as Lockdown Is Eased, Says Anti-Slavery Chief

By Amber Milne

LONDON, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Britain must be vigilant against human traffickers when it eases the coronavirus lockdown, the country's anti-slavery chief said, warning of potential exploitation in industries such as hospitality that will be in a rush to recruit new workers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to present this week a possible way out of the lockdown to revive the economy and allow people to return to work without triggering a second spike in COVID-19 cases.

Yet traffickers could capitalise as businesses race to recruit low-paid workers, said Sara Thornton, who took up the post of independent anti-slavery commissioner a year ago.

"A sudden rush to recruit into hospitality, into hotels ... any industry ... we have to really look out for that because it's where traffickers ... take their cut," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. "That's a real risk."

Major hotels in Britain are failing to protect workers from debt bondage and sexual exploitation, according to a study last year by the human rights group Walk Free that found 75% of hospitality businesses were flouting anti-slavery legislation.

Thornton said she was also concerned about the whereabouts and well-being of people who had been trafficked to Britain to work in informal sectors such as car washes and beauty salons.

"No nail bars are open so what has happened to the young people working [there]?" said Thornton, formerly head of the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC).

"Their debts haven't gone away. The worry is ... people will end up being pushed into more perilous, insecure, and risky work," she added. "There's a real concern for them."

Academics and activists have said trafficking victims who fall ill with COVID-19 are unlikely to seek help for fear of being exposed to authorities, while others may be driven further into debt as they can no longer work to pay off what they owe.

"Unsettling and Frightening"

A record 10,627 possible slavery victims were identified last year in Britain — up 52% from 2018. Labour exploitation was the most common form of abuse and victims came from countries such as Albania, Vietnam, China, Nigeria, and India.

Despite being hailed as a global leader in the anti-slavery drive, Britain's landmark 2015 law has faced widespread criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive companies to tackle forced labour, or help enough victims.

Thornton said it was an "unsettling and frightening" time for victims and survivors, as stockpiling essentials was not an option for people entitled to £65 ($81) a week in aid.

"The worry ... is that a lot of victims are supported by charities and charitable giving has really gone down," she said.

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People who say they have been enslaved enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and access care, from housing and health care to legal aid, while their claim is considered.

Britain last week pledged £1.7 million in emergency support for modern slavery charities, and said the money would let victims stay in safe accommodation for the next three months and access financial assistance and support services remotely.

Despite the challenges posed by the new coronavirus, Thornton said she was determined to view it as a chance to "really push" for long-term victim support from education to job opportunities while also spotlighting labour rights in Britain.

"When we begin to recover the economy it's so important that the issues of decent work and fair pay and the human rights of employees ... are absolutely central to that," Thornton said.

(Reporting by Amber Milne; editing by Kieran Guilbert and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)