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Changing lives for the better: a real life story of a modern slavery victim

This week Alison Hernandez tells the story of John and how we can all play our part in tackling modern slavery.

As your police and crime commissioner I have specific responsibilities for supporting victims of crime and helping them to recover and move forward with their lives and I want to take the time this week to talk to you about a particular victim, let’s call him John.

John is 26-years-old. He could be your old school friend, your son or your nephew. John struggled at school. He found concentrating hard and had a difficult and often chaotic home life. John left school at 16 with no qualifications. At 17 John left his home town and moved away. He occasionally looked for work but due to his background, limited literacy and lack of qualifications he struggled. John was quiet and withdrawn – he had few friends and didn’t really stay in contact with his family.

One day – after a particularly long period without work and with no fixed address John met a man, let’s call him Tom. Tom spoke to John and listened to his frustrations. He related to John and told him about his own background – which seemed similar.

Tom wanted to give him a chance – and said he could get him work at the factory where he worked. The factory was several hundred miles away – but Tom offered to pay to get him there and to sort out a place for him to live – sharing a house with two other people he knew. John – he said - could pay him back out of his first wages.

John took the job but all was not as expected.

When he arrived in the town he found he was sharing a three bedroom house with 12 other people. The house was dirty and cramped and had no heating. His old mobile phone was taken from him.

The next morning a minibus arrived at 6am and picked them up. He (and the others in the house) were taken to a warehouse to pack vegetables. That first shift lasted 14 hours. Every day was the same – pick up at 6am and drop off around 9pm – 7 days a week.

He never saw Tom again. John received no money. He was paid in alcohol, food and tobacco and told all his wages were needed for his debts and his rent. If John occasionally complained or stopped work he was threatened and sometimes beaten. His injuries, including some broken bones had to heal without medical treatment. John quickly became dependent on the cheap strong cider that was given as wages by his new ‘employer’.

After about six months the minibus took them somewhere else. A new house. A new town. A new job. But basically the same story. Long hours. No wages. Payment in alcohol, food and tobacco. Threats of violence and abuse.

Over the next five years John was moved from house to house and job to job. Often he never knew the name of the town he was living in. His family did not know where he was – and he had no way of getting in contact with them.

Eventually the people he was working for were caught up in a police investigation and John and another 30 people were found at a factory when the police came.

Communicating with John to understand his story was hard. Years of dependence on the alcohol used to control him – had left him confused about what had happened to him. On occasion he would ask the officers if they were going to move him on to the next factory – he had come to know no other way of life.

As some of you will have observed as you read this John is a victim of modern slavery.

Now John wasn’t locked up in a room for those six years but be under no illusions – he was ‘captive’ and was exploited each and every day.  His so-called ‘employers’ isolated him, they controlled him with alcohol and threats of violence and made him work 14 hour days seven days a week.

Unfortunately John’s story is not unique. The Home Office estimates that there may be as many as 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK alone. There is no typical victim of slavery.

Victims can be men, women and children of all ages and cut across the population, but it is normally more prevalent amongst the most vulnerable, minority or socially excluded groups. Some victims are forced into prostitution or domestic servitude or are made to transport and sell drugs. Others are made to work 16 hour days picking crops or labouring. Mostly they live in squalid conditions, are subjected to physical and mental abuse and receive no payment for the work that they do.

Some good progress has been made in tackling this terrible crime and helping people like John but there is still much more to be done.  Our own Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer is leading this work nationally for the police and we have a new Home Office funded national modern slavery unit which is based in Exmouth. I was pleased to visit the Exmouth team last week along with the Sarah Newton, then Home Office Minister for Crime, Vulnerability and Safeguarding, to learn about the work they are doing.

Victims like John need considerable support and dedicated organisations like the British Red Cross, Unseen and the Salvation Army are working with survivors to help them move recover and reclaim their lives. Our own Victim Care Unit also provides access to support services for victims of modern slavery.

As communities and individuals we also have a part to play, by being vigilant and reporting anything of concern that we see.

Finally I am aware that as consumers we are not always sure whether the products or services we buy are exploiting people and we are currently looking at how businesses in Devon and Cornwall reassure you about their practices as required by the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and what more might be done.

I urge you to all visit the Modern Slavery Helpline website and learn more about spotting the signs of modern slavery at www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/learn-more/general/spot-the-signs  If you have the slightest suspicion that there is a crime happening in your area, contact:

·    the national modern slavery helpline on 0800 0121 700
·    Devon and Cornwall Police via 101 services (or 999 if you think someone is in imminent danger)
·    Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

Alison Hernandez

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