Somalatha arrived in Britain when she was 29 with a family for whom she had been working in Jordan. Her job was to be a maid. She had to work 16 to 18 hours a day, for which she was paid £200 a month. In the first two years, she was not given one day off.
She was not allowed to eat with the family and had to wait for leftovers. If there were none, she was advised to eat onions and potatoes. If any food was missing, she was automatically blamed for it, or even punished.
Somalatha had to sleep on a sofa-bed in the sitting room, where she was disturbed by anyone who came in late. Friday nights were especially difficult since the teenage children would come home late at night and bring their friends, which would prevent her from sleeping.
Her employer deliberately let Somalatha's visa expire. Since she was without a visa, she could not run away. She kept asking for a letter from her employer so she could apply to renew her visa but this was refused.
Under current law, women like Somalatha have a way out. But the Government is about to close her escape route. Earlier this year it proposed changes to the law which will divide migrants to the UK into five tiers according to their perceived skills and the economic benefit they will bring to the country.
This system makes no mention of women like Somalatha. But immigration officials have told Anti-Slavery International - one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal - that domestic workers like Somalatha will henceforth be tied to the employers with whom they entered the UK, with no right to change employers - no matter how abusive their treatment.
It is not the only area in which modern forms of slavery are on the rise in Britain. A law against trafficking for forced labour was introduced after 23 Chinese workers lost their lives as they harvested cockles against a rising tide in Morecambe Bay in 2004. But the trade in human exploitation continues.
Many of the migrant workers from eastern Europe entering the UK, legally, as part of EU enlargement conditions are being lured by gangmasters into debt-traps from which they find it almost impossible to escape. "The traffickers charge large fees," says Anti-Slavery's director, Aidan McQuade, "with the lure that these can be repaid with high wages earned in the UK. Fees can range from several hundred to thousands of pounds and the interest rates which are charged can be very high so that, in effect, they never get out of debt."
Somalatha was rescued by one of Anti-Slavery International's partner organisations, Kalayaan, which runs a community centre offering advice on immigration and employment law. But many others still suffer. A survey of Kalayaan's clients showed that 75 per cent reported psychological abuse and more than a third were physically abused.
Until now the law has offered some help to women like Somalatha, allowing them to change employers so long as they are in full-time employment as a domestic worker in a private household. But, under Labour's immigration crackdown, this is about to be changed so such workers lose the right to change their employer. Campaigners fear this will mean employers will keep workers on illegally, making them easier to exploit.
"It will mean they lose vital protection against violence, mistreatment and exploitation," says Kate Roberts, a community support worker at Kalayaan. "They will effectively lose basic protection under UK employment law - their entitlement to the national minimum wage, statutory holiday pay and a notice period - because, in practice, these women almost always live-in and won't take a legal case against their employer until they have, as they put it, 'run away'."
Kalayaan and Anti-Slavery International have begun a campaign to keep the law as it is - allowing such workers the right to leave their original employers while maintaining their immigration status as a domestic worker. It also allows them to apply for settlement rights after four years.
But the exploitation goes beyond domestic workers. A group of Polish workers working in a chicken-packing factory near Exeter was recently discovered by a trade union to be living in a house with no furniture. They were sleeping on bare mattresses and using an electric cooker with its wires stripped bare and pushed straight into the socket. Their gangmasters had threatened them with eviction and loss of two weeks' wages if they dared to tell anyone about their conditions.
The men and women had been recruited in Poland to come to England on legal work permits. Two men from an English recruitment agency went to a central Polish city to interview workers. They promised the minimum wage of £4.50 an hour, accommodation for £25 per person per week and lots of overtime. But the gangmasters exploit their victims' ignorance of the law and inability to speak English. They make exorbitant additional deductions from wages - for " worker registration" or "visa extensions". The Poles - several of whom were given the same national insurance number - had huge deductions made for tax, which were never paid to the Inland Revenue. They paid £40 rent each, although they were sleeping on the floor, and even though the legal maximum for rent for people on a minimum wage is just under £25.
Those who cannot be controlled by such means are threatened. Anti-Slavery came across two men from Vietnam who had had to pay £18,000 for their jobs in the UK. They came to Britain under a legal work permit scheme and were promised wages of £4.95 per hour. But when they arrived they had their passports taken from them and were made to work for two months without any pay. In protest, they tried to go on strike. Almost immediately, their families back in Vietnam received threats of physical violence
Such is the seamy underside of life for the workers we see in our motorway services, as casual labour in ports, working in restaurants, hotels and in nail parlours or doing our laundry.
Slavery, it seems, is alive if
well hidden, in Britain, in the 21st century.
* 1990s In opposition, the Labour Party pledged to legislate to end the exploitation of migrant domestic workers.
* 1998 One of Tony Blair's early steps in office was to pass a law allowing such workers to change their employer, renew their visa to stay and, after four years, apply to settle in the UK.
* 2004 In wake of deaths of cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay, Government passes the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act, a system for registering labour in the agricultural, shellfish and related packing and processing sectors.
* 2006 Under its consultation
exercise Making Migration Work for Britain, Labour proposes to rescind
the rights of migrant domestic workers. It refuses to sign the Council
of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.
ALSO FROM The Independent on Dec 27 2006
There are slaves in Britain today. Impossible, most people would say. Not so. It is just that they are hidden away. It is a problem which both the police and the Home Office acknowledge, but which is kept out of the political spotlight because of contradictions between the Government's attitude to immigration - on which it seeks to placate populist opinion - and its avowed determination to crackdown on people trafficking.
What do we mean by slaves? Anyone who is forced to work through coercion or deception, for little or no pay, and who is controlled by an "employer", usually through mental or physical abuse or threats. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are at least 360,000 people living in slavery in industrialised countries. Two-thirds have been coerced into forced labour by people traffickers in a worldwide industry worth at least $32bn a year. This is plainly big business.
No one knows how many of these people are in the UK. There are thought to be thousands of people in Britain who are slaves today. Most of them are caught in deliberately sprung debt traps. They have been tricked into taking a loan for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child - or more commonly to buy passage into the UK.
To repay the debt, many are forced to work long hours, seven days a week, up to 365 days a year. They receive basic food and shelter as "payment" for their work, but may never pay off the loan. Such unfortunate people are to be found in agriculture, construction, cleaning and domestic work, food processing and packaging, care and nursing and the restaurant trade.
British politicians are happy to fulminate about the iniquities of people trafficking. But they have created a legal and political framework which makes it virtually impossible to take sustained and effective action against the criminal gangs who undertake the trade.
After the incident in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in the thrall of a gangmaster lost their lives in Morecambe Bay, the Government made trafficking for forced labour a criminal offence. A licensing system came into force this year. And the Government is setting up a UK Human Trafficking Centre with a mandate to pursue trafficking for both labour as well as sexual exploitation.
Yet despite these positive initiatives, there has not been a single successful prosecution for the offence since it was introduced in 2004. Nor is there any special assistance available to people who are trafficked for forced labour. Most mystifyingly, the Government still has not signed the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, which would ensure that people trafficked into forced labour are provided with minimum standards of protection and support. More than 30 other European countries have signed.
Why this lamentable failure? A central reason is that the investigation of trafficking is fatally hampered by the UK immigration policy and the "prism" of organised immigration crime, through which trafficking is seen at the policy level.
For the police to have any prospect of catching those who run international networks, they must have the co-operation of the victims. However, when the victims have irregular status in the country, there is limited incentive for them to co-operate with the police. The police cannot guarantee them protection, access to services or an opportunity to regularise their status. They can only try to negotiate protection for them with the Immigration Service, which often attempts to deport victims whom the police would regard as witnesses and expect to be treated as victims of crime.
This is because the Immigration Service works on a quota system of deportations. So for immigration officials, there is limited incentive to stop the deportation of victims of trafficking, even if it assists police enquiries. This situation is likely to get worse, not better.
Under the Government's latest proposals, the number of deportations will increase from next month. This will further hamper the pursuit of criminals, for the victims of trafficking are even less likely to co-operate with the police if they are immediately to be deported back to the very countries where those criminal gangs still hold sway.
The result is a system whose priorities are upside down. Instead of protecting the rights of victims, the system punishes them. Trafficked people can be detained, charged or prosecuted for immigration offences such as illegal entry or destroying their documents, although this is most likely to have happened as a result of coercion from the traffickers.
What all this means is that trafficking people to the UK remains a high-profit, low-risk business for those criminal gangs who organise it. In countries like Germany and Italy, which have signed the European Convention Against Trafficking - and where minimum standards of protection to the victims of human trafficking now exist - prosecutions have increased. In the UK there has still not been not been a single prosecution.
This situation has always been unacceptable from a human-rights perspective. What is clear now is that it is unjustifiable from a law-enforcement perspective as well.
The writer is director of Anti-Slavery International, one of the charities supported by the 'Independent' Christmas appeal
JANUARY 1st 2007
4 START THE WEEK
This week Andrew Marr was joined by John Micklethwait, Jude Kelly, Mark Walport and Charles Kennedy.
William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 in Hull, the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied at Cambridge University where he began a lasting friendship with the future prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, Wilberforce became member of parliament for Hull, later representing Yorkshire. His dissolute lifestyle changed completely when he became an evangelical Christian, and in 1784 he joined a leading group known as the Clapham Sect. His Christian faith prompted him to become interested in social reform, particularly the improvement of factory conditions in Britain.
The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson had an enormous influence on Wilberforce. He and others were campaigning for an end to the trade in which British ships were carrying black slaves from Africa, in terrible conditions, to the West Indies as goods to be bought and sold. Wilberforce was persuaded to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and for 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament. The campaign was supported by many members of the Clapham Sect and other abolitionists who raised public awareness of their cause with pamphlets, books, rallies and petitions. In 1807, the slave trade was finally abolished, but this did not free those who were already slaves. It was not until 1833 that an act was passed giving freedom to all slaves in the British empire.
Wilberforce retired from politics in 1825 and died on 29 July 1833, shortly after the Act to free slaves in the British Empire passed through the House of Commons. He was buried near his friend Pitt in Westminster Abbey.
"Wilberforce, to my mind, deserves the proper recognition which he has been denied for so many decades, deserves, in effect, a resurrection in the history of this country, deserves, if I may push it further, to be someone who leads a movement of the reassessment of what this country, in various ways and individuals in particular ways, have added to the world, as distinct from the constant cry of what we have taken from it."
Asked why the House of Commons was to debate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, since this was not a legislative matter, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) replied that it was a matter that was of deep interest to a large section of the population of this country. Therefore it was right and proper that the Prime Minister had expressed his regret on the issue, and that it was part of the debate this year of all years. It would be inappropriate not to recognise that. Asked if someone had been found to speak for slavery, the PMOS replied this was a superficial point. Many people in this country felt very deeply about slavery and therefore it was important to recognise that, and important that we did not reduce it to simplicity.