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I am not your slave

Andrew Wallis and Justine Currell
Posted September 22, 2017

Andrew Wallis was a pastor in the UK city of Bristol when a team from his church visited Ukraine and found themselves paying off a trafficker to free a girl from slavery. Andrew decided to do something—a decade later he has helped change laws in the UK, and change history. 

It’s not often you sit in front of two people and know they have changed history. But Andrew Wallis and Justine Currell have done just that. They were instrumental in ushering in the revolutionary Modern Slavery Act in the UK, setting their country on a path few thought possible: ending slavery within our lifetime.

‘Can we end slavery? Yes. I think it’s doable in the next 40 to 50 years if you pull at the big systemic leavers,’ says Andrew, CEO of the charity Unseen. ‘Will it happen? Yes. Our number-one mission statement is to put ourselves out of business. We’re here for a very clear and distinct purpose, which is to end slavery.’

Andrew—who was recently awarded an OBE by the Queen—founded Unseen 10 years ago, which quickly established itself as a leading voice for anti-trafficking within the UK. Justine was the Senior Policy Advisor and led the UK government in writing the Modern Slavery Act, but has since joined Unseen as Executive Director. The pair visited New Zealand recently to share their knowledge with our government and lend their voices to the anti-trafficking conference ‘Tip of the Iceberg’, held in Wellington.

Micro to macro

Andrew had his ‘first collision’ with human trafficking when he was a pastor at a church in his hometown of Bristol—which, perhaps not so coincidentally, was the hub of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade before it was outlawed in 1833. 

A team from his church were visiting Ukraine, when a young woman came up to them asking if they were the people she was supposed to meet. She explained she had been offered a job selling ice cream in New York, earning $80,000 a year. 

‘Someone on the team was ex-FBI and had worked on trafficking, so he knew what was happening straight away,’ explains Andrew. The group cobbled together the $600 she had paid the so-called employment agency. ‘They gave her the money with instructions not to respond to those ads. At that point, the trafficker turned up and demanded more money before he would let her leave, so they had to pay him off. He then left, and came back with the local police officer, trying to extract yet more money.’ 

At that time, the media was reporting that traffickers were using local airports, like Bristol, to avoid more vigorous controls at Heathrow. Andrew started writing to local MPs and city councillors. He met with a senior police officer, who explained with some exasperation that ‘all we can do is treat it as illegal immigration. If we discover victims, we put them in a B&B for the night, and the next day they disappear’. 

‘He said in a very polite way, “Any idiot can write a letter, what are you going to do about it?” ’

What Andrew did was start the charity Unseen, setting up safe housing for survivors of trafficking. But Andrew quickly realised being the safe house at the bottom of the cliff was not enough. ‘We didn’t just want to create safe houses, because that was like saying that we accept trafficking is going to happen. For us, it was about turning the tap off,’ he sums up. 

Unseen developed a ‘micro to macro’ approach, tackling the spectrum of issues: from the immediate needs of trafficking victims, through to working with government to change legislation, supporting the police, and collaborating with businesses to help them address their supply chains. 

Surviving slavery

At the ‘micro’ end, Unseen has worked with over 250 survivors of trafficking from 37 different countries—including UK natives. The average stay in a safe house is almost three months, and Unseen provides a robust support network, including medical care, sexual health services, access to education or employment, and reintegration into society. Unseen is currently developing a new initiative to partner with businesses to provide employment opportunities for survivors.

‘Some people become victims because they come to the UK looking for work and are duped, and all they want is the opportunity to work and get on with their life,’ says Andrew. ‘Often they don’t realise there’s a minimum wage. A victim will say, “Well, I’m only earning £5 a day, but that’s more than I could get at home.” But we say, “Well, in the UK you’re entitled to earn £8 an hour, so it’s not okay.” Most of them are working to send money to families back home, so if you can help them access their rights, everyone ends up in a better situation.’ 

Just under a year ago, Unseen launched the nationwide Modern Slavery Helpline. It has so far received 1800 calls and made 1050 referrals, including 500 calls that have gone straight to the police. Around 50 per cent of calls come from victims themselves, or on behalf of victims. 

‘We recently got a call from someone in domestic servitude,’ recalls Justine. ‘She was staying in a couple’s house for some months, she was continually raped by the husband and beaten by the wife, and they had threatened to kill her. We safety planned with her, engaged the local police, and worked out a window of opportunity for when she could leave the property.’ The girl was able to escape, and went into a Salvation Army safe housing programme. Unseen works closely with The Salvation Army to provide support for trafficking victims.

Other calls come from members of the public or businesses wanting to improve their practices. ‘We recently got a call from a person who thought maybe someone was living in a metal container on a factory site. Five days later the police found the man and discovered he had been in exploitative labour at the factory. We got him out and he’s now in supportive accommodation,’ says Justine. ‘That was literally from someone spotting something that didn’t look quite right. Our message is that if something doesn’t look quite right, it probably isn’t.’ 

A victim will say, "Well, I'm only earning £5 a day, but that's more than I could get at home."

Changing history

On the back of his work with survivors, Andrew was asked to chair a report for the think tank Centre for Social Justice. For two years, they gathered evidence for a wide-ranging report on trafficking, discovering that ‘the scale was much bigger than anyone thought possible’.

The report included a horrifying case of two UK-born children who were trafficked by a group of men and raped 90 times in one weekend. The case caught the attention of the media, making national headlines. 

Justine was responsible for what she calls the ‘backwater crime’ of trafficking at the Home Office. But due to the media coverage, she suddenly found herself heading up world-leading, high-profile legislation. 

It was crucial to re-frame trafficking as an issue of criminality, not illegal immigration—treating victims as illegal immigrants meant they were often deported and ended up being re-trafficked. The new UK law banned victims from being prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit, and made it clear that the only criminals were the traffickers.

But there was still one major piece of the puzzle missing: if the UK truly wanted to tackle slavery, it needed to address exploitation in the supply chains of its products. MPs didn’t want a bar of that.

‘But we had been working with businesses for two years,’ says Andrew, ‘and they had indicated they wanted legislation to level the playing field.’ There was intense lobbying from both sides of the divide and it went down to the wire. At the eleventh hour a provision was put into legislation for transparency in the supply chain. 

‘This was the systemic game changer. The Act went from an average piece of legislation to what ministers were calling world-class—even the ones that were initially against transparency in supply chains,’ says Andrew with a smile.

Naming and faming

The Modern Slavery Act made the UK the first country in the world to require any business with a turnover of over £36 million to ensure there is no exploitation in its supply chain. Andrew calls it ‘one of the sneakiest pieces of legislation’ because it places responsibility firmly within the board rooms of businesses. ‘That changes the whole conversation. It forces businesses to have conversations they’ve never had before, and that’s what affects change.’

‘The legislation is deliberately non-prescriptive,’ adds Justine. ‘Box ticking encourages you to do the minimum—but asking, “Tell us about the steps you’ve taken” encourages a race to the top.’

The two years since the legislation was introduced have already seen a seismic shift in the way businesses are approaching trafficking. ‘When it comes to business, we need to move from “name and shame” to “name and fame”. It takes courage for a business to say they have found trafficking in their supply chain,’ says Andrew. He gives the example of a famous department store: ‘They came to us and said, “We think we’ve found an incident of modern slavery, can you please help us to assess whether it is and liaise with different authorities to get help?” ’

Those who truly have the power to stop slavery are the businesses and the consumers who buy their products—and for those of us who live in the West, that is every one of us. Slavery is unseen but all around us—in our cafés, nail bars, farms, agriculture and supply chains.

Justine gives the example of the cheap nail bars that have popped up in the past decade. ‘It’s evident that if a Vietnamese nail bar costs you £20, but a British nail bar costs you £40, somebody somewhere is being undercut. And the people who lose out are usually the workers.’

‘The big systemic issue is about our addiction to cheap,’ sums up Andrew. ‘Whether it’s cheap services, goods or sex, that’s what drives this issue. It has taken us 30 to 40 years to get hooked on the drug of “cheap”, so it will take us 30 to 40 years to get free from that. But we can do it.’

Survivor Stories

Modern day slavery is the commodification of people for the purposes of making money. People are typically deceived and abused to keep them captive—both physically and emotionally.

‘I was working all day when the site was visited by police, local authority and Unseen. I was really scared and didn’t know what was happening. It was discovered my employer was exploiting all of his workers, he lost his franchise and Unseen helped me get another job. I’m now working, being paid properly and have rebuilt relationships with my family.’—Gheorghe.

‘I was promised a better life in the UK, but when I got here, I was locked in a house and raped daily. I had no passport and could not speak English. They sold me for sex. One day, my trafficker didn’t lock the door and I escaped. I was found by the police, and brought to an Unseen safe house.’—Grace.

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 23 September 2017, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.