Modern slavery and human trafficking

Modern slavery describes a situation where someone has gained control or ownership over another person and is using this power to exploit them.

Someone is a victim of modern slavery if they have experienced any of the following:

  • being forced to work because of physical or verbal threats
  • being owned or controlled by an ’employer’, usually through mental, emotional, sexual or physical abuse, or the threat of abuse
  • being held captive
  • being dehumanised, treated as a commodity, or bought and sold as ‘property’
  • having restrictions placed on their freedom
  • being moved against their will.
  • Forms of modern slavery

    Labour exploitation – being forced to work for little or no pay. People may be threatened with violence and live in poor conditions, either at their workplace or at a separate location. Their identity documents (including passports if they are a foreign national) may have been confiscated.

    Human trafficking – moving people for the purposes of exploitation. This movement could be international or within a country, county or urban area. People are victims of human trafficking if they have been moved for the purposes of exploitation, even if this exploitation is yet to take place. Human trafficking can include people being forced to travel in order to traffic drugs or other illegal substances.

    Sexual exploitation – being forced to participate in sexual activities, often for little or no pay. This can include being forced into prostitution or pornography. Read more about sexual exploitation.

    Domestic servitude – forced work in a household where the person may be ill-treated, work for little or no pay, and work and live under poor conditions.

    Forced marriage – where someone is forced into marriage. This may be in order to exploit their citizenship rights or to engage them in domestic servitude.

    Forced criminality – forced participation in illegal activities such as shoplifting, pick-pocketing, drug dealing and drug trafficking (including county lines activities). Read more about county lines.

    Financial exploitation – deceiving or coercing someone into handing over monetary funds or assets to others. This can include benefit fraud (claiming benefits owed to another person), confiscating someone’s wages and opening and using a bank account registered in another’s name. Read more about financial exploitation.

    Debt bondage – present in many forms of exploitation. Can arise from ‘debts’ accumulated whilst being exploited (including for transport, accommodation or items such as food or drugs).  The person is forced to work or perform favours to pay off the debt. Debt bondage can act as a means to control someone and keep them enslaved.

    Organ Harvesting – harvesting people’s organs for transplant against their will. This may involve victims being trafficked to locations where organ harvesting can take place.

    Modern slavery is not the same as people smuggling. People smuggling is an offence against the state, involving moving people illegally with their consent. Modern slavery and human trafficking are crimes against the individual, involving moving people without their consent.

  • National and local context

    Modern slavery is a major issue in Britain. Victims and perpetrators include UK citizens and foreign nationals from a range of countries. People may be trafficked into the UK from abroad or may be trafficked internally between cities, towns and rural areas. Modern slavery can take place anywhere – including villages and coastal areas as well as large towns and cities.

    People of all genders and ages can be victims of modern slavery. Over half of modern slavery referrals reported nationally relate to children and young people under the age of twenty-seven.

    Perpetrators of modern slavery may be involved in organised crime networks or could be people close to the victim, including family members, friends, partners or employers.

    People who are victims of modern slavery may have been exploited for many years. Sometimes they are kept in one location or type of ’employment’ for a long time. It is also common for them to be periodically moved between locations to avoid raising suspicions. These moves may coincide with a change in the work they are expected to perform or the nature of their enslavement.

    Labour exploitation is most commonly reported in Devon. There is currently limited intelligence about other forms of slavery, indicating a need to further develop our understanding of the breadth of slavery-related exploitation occurring in the county.

    Hotspots for labour exploitation in Devon include the tourism and hospitality industries (particularly where these are seasonal), nail bars and car washes. Hotels and holiday lets may be used for exploitation on a short-term basis, for example as a place to establish pop-up brothels.

    Care should be taken to avoid assuming that people of particular national/ethnic origins, or people in a particular lines of business, are involved in modern slavery – all concerns should be based on evidence that someone is being harmed, coerced, controlled or denied their rights and freedoms.

  • Factors increasing vulnerability to modern slavery

    Factors increasing vulnerability to modern slavery include:

  • Locations where modern slavery takes place

    Modern slavery can happen in many public and private locations. There is increased risk of modern slavery taking place in the following locations and industries:

    • car washes
    • brothels, including temporary (‘pop-up’) brothels
    • holiday lets, hotels and rented accommodation
    • nail bars and massage parlours
    • the agriculture and fisheries industries
    • the construction industry
    • the domestic service industry
    • the food processing industry
    • the hospitality industry (including hotels and restaurants)
    • the tourism industry.

  • Signs that someone is being exploited

    Common signs that someone is being exploited include those listed below. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and that warning signs will show themselves differently in each person. It is important to explore all concerns over someone’s behaviour and personal circumstances and to consider whether these could be signs of exploitation.

    Appearance and behaviour

    • lacking personal items and identity documents – these may be in the possession of another person
    • consistently wearing the same clothes
    • fearful or withdrawn behaviour, or efforts made to disguise this
    • having their communication controlled by another person – may act as though they are instructed by or dependent on someone else
    • tattoos or other marks indicating ownership
    • physical or psychological abuse, ill health, exhaustion or injury – may look unkempt and malnourished.

    Personal circumstances

    • limited social contact with family, friends and the community
    • appearing unfamiliar with a neighbourhood or workplace
    • having their movements controlled or being unable to travel on their own
    • having limited or no personal control over earnings
    • indications that their property has been taken over by another person or group – the victim may still live at the property

    Workplace and living arrangements

    • working and living in the same location or building
    • inappropriate and unsafe working conditions, workers may be inappropriately clothed
    • dirty, cramped, unhygienic or overcrowded accommodation, including shared houses, caravans, sheds, tents and outbuildings
    • steps taken to stop others from looking into the inside of a property or building  – windows permanently covered or containing a reflective coating, curtains permanently closed
    • steps taken to limit access into or from a property or building – access to the property restricted, surprising amount of locks and security (inside and outside), letterbox sealed to prevent use
    • being moved between specific locations (for example to and from work) – this may happen at unusual times such as very early in the day, or at night
    • frequent changes in place of work or residence – this may include moving between temporary accommodation
    • working in a job different to that specified at the time of recruitment.

    Other observations and circumstances

    • reluctance or inability to provide details about their personal circumstances – such as work or accommodation addresses
    • being involved in gang activities
    • being involved in the consumption, sale or trafficking of drugs
    • reluctance to seek help, avoidance of strangers, being fearful or hostile towards authorities
    • if questioned may provide a prepared story or struggle to recall experiences
    • accounts of their experiences may be inconsistent or contain errors. 

    Signs that a child is being enslaved or trafficked

    • being cared for by someone who is not their parent or legal guardian
    • concerns over the relationship between the child and the person who is caring for them, including concerns over unmet care needs or concerned that a child is fearful of their caregiver
    • not attending school or registered with a GP
    • presence of multiple unrelated children at one address
    • going missing after coming into contact with the authorities – this could indicate that they have been re-trafficked.

  • Case study


    Chi lived in Saigon, Vietnam, with his wife and children. He was forcibly removed from his home by a group of men he had never met. He was threatened with violence and forced onto a boat travelling to an unknown location.

    During this journey Chi was forced to work for his captors and was sexually exploited. When the boat made landfall Chi found himself in an unknown foreign country.  He was alone and thousands of miles away from his family. He was told by his captors that if he ran away he would be sent to prison by the authorities.

    Chi managed to escape his captors and took refuge in a container at a nearby port. He hoped to travel home without being caught be the authorities.

    Instead, he eventually arrived in Dover where he was found by another group of unknown people who forced him to work for no money and under the threat of violence. Chi worked in several restaurants across London before being trafficked to the South West.

    Chi was working at a restaurant in Devon when it was visited by the police as part of a week of action against modern slavery. Chi’s lack of identity documents suggested that he had entered the UK illegally and could be a victim of modern slavery.

    He was taken to a police station but was afraid to speak to the police, fearing arrest and imprisonment. However, after reassurances that this would not happen, he told the police about his experiences. It became clear that Chi was a victim of modern slavery. He was provided with a safe place to stay before being allowed to return home to his family.

    This case study is based on a number of real cases which have happened in Devon. In the interests of confidentiality all names and other identifying features are fictional.

  • Links between modern slavery and other forms of exploitation

    Victims of modern slavery may experience other forms of exploitation whilst they are being enslaved or trafficked. This may include sexual exploitation, financial exploitation (if their wages or other monetary assets are confiscated or controlled) or involvement in criminal activities. They may have become indebted to or financially dependent on those exploiting them, and may be forced to accept further exploitation as a means to repay these debts.

    Victims of many different exploitative situations may also be vulnerable to modern slavery and human trafficking. For example, modern slavery is becoming increasingly linked with the trafficking and sale of illegal drugs, especially county lines activities.

    Those responsible for transporting drugs are often forced to do so and may be victims of human trafficking. People whose homes have been taken oven (‘cuckooed’) by drugs gangs are often kept in a state of servitude or enslavement, with their freedom and movements restricted.

    These links between modern slavery and the trafficking and sale of illegal drugs are reflected in the increasing numbers of modern slavery referrals within Devon relating to people involved in county lines activities.