Lords vote on new UK slavery law

23 October 2009

The House of Lords has the historic opportunity to protect more than a thousand people estimated to be in slavery in the UK when they vote to make forced labour a crime.

The adoption of the new law, expected to be voted on Monday 26 October, would also bring the UK in line with its international obligations and protect it from a future challenge by the European Court of Human Rights.

The House of Lords will vote on the creation of two criminal offences when they debate the Coroners and Justice Bill. The two new offences are the holding of someone in servitude, punishable of up to 14 years in prison, and the subjecting of someone to forced labour, punishable of up to 7 years in prison.

Anti-Slavery International and Liberty are urgently pushing for a change in the law to protect the hundreds of people in slavery currently not protected by any legislation and the estimated 1,000 people in forced labour who have been trafficked into the UK.

People in forced labour work across a range of sectors, including domestic servitude, agriculture, construction, food processing and packaging, nursing, hospitality, and the restaurant trade. As an example of the dangers faced by a single community in the UK, Chinese migrant workers have been found in forced labour as DVD sellers, in factory work and in Chinese restaurants.

Forced labour is currently only a punishable crime in the UK if someone has been trafficked from abroad after 2004. Previously, cases of forced labour have been dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service because of doubts over the ability to prove the trafficking element.  Anti-Slavery International also estimates that hundreds of people are in forced labour who have not been trafficked.

The trade in slaves was made a criminal offence in the 19th century but the laws prohibiting the trade did not expressly make it an offence to hold a person in servitude or subject them to forced labour. The punishment set out in current laws dealing with false imprisonment and kidnapping are not appropriate as they do not reflect the gravity of the offence and are also not suitable to protect those forced to work by threats or other forms of coercion but are able to leave their place of work.

Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International, said: “To not have a law to protect people from forced labour is comparable to Britain not having criminalised torture. Forced labour will remain a reality in the UK unless adequate legislation is put in place and enforced.

“Getting the police to prosecute those who hold people in modern day slavery is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear offence criminalising this practice. The existing legal provisions fail to protect victims or ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice.”

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said: “In an age when new criminal offences have flown out of Westminster like confetti, the lack of an effective anti-slavery law is a gaping hole in the protection of the vulnerable. We urge parliamentarians of all stripes to join together in supporting this amendment and honouring the tradition of William Wilberforce.”

Under the European Convention on Human Rights the UK must prohibit slavery, servitude and forced labour. Set out in a legal opinion on the proposed amendments the Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken MacDonald QC, believes that without the adoption of this amendment the UK is vulnerable to challenges in the European Court of Human Rights for failing to protect people from slavery.

In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights found France in breach of its obligations because it lacked the criminal legislation to protect a Togolese woman from domestic servitude (Siliadin v France).

For further information and to receive a copy of the joint briefing by Liberty and Anti-Slavery International as well as the legal opinion co-authored by Kevin MacDonald QC, contact:

Anti-Slavery International Press office – Paul Donohoe, 020 7501 8934 p.donohoe@antislavery.org

Liberty Press office – Bridget Beale, 020 7378 3677, bridgetb@liberty-human-rights.org.uk

Notes for Editors

Definitions of new offences

1. Servitude is defined as severely restricting the person’s freedom of movement and choice of residence and subjects someone to forced or compulsory labour.

A person found guilty of this crime would be convicted to up to 14 years in prison.

2. Forced labour occurs if someone is compelled by physical or other means without being freely consenting to perform work or is being threatened with harm for not performing the work.

Someone is viewed as not being consenting if the consent was obtained through deception, fraud or coercion or taking place under debt bondage.

A person found guilty of this crime would be convicted up to 7 years in prison.