Victims of modern slavery may number 100,000 in UK – ten times latest Government estimate

The “appalling abuse” of modern day slavery in the UK will take a “long time” to stamp out, the Justice Secretary has said, as another fashion brand announced an investigation into allegations of low pay in clothes factories.

It comes as Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said he believes as many as 10,000 people could be working in slave-like conditions in textile factories in Leicester and a new report suggests there could be 100,000 victims in the UK – around 10 times the latest Government estimate.

Clothing firm Quiz said on Monday it believes that one of its suppliers, based in the city, has used a subcontractor at the centre of allegations over breaches to the national living wage.

The brand said it is “extremely concerned” by a report in the Times over the weekend that its clothes are being made in a factory where prospective staff are being offered as little as £3 an hour – despite the living wage being £8.72 for someone over the age of 25.

The company said it is looking into the issue, just a week after similar allegations took more than a third off the share price of Boohoo.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said modern slavery is in “every town and city in Britain” and welcomed the National Crime Agency’s statement last week that it is assessing allegations of modern slavery and exploitation in the textile industry in Leicester.

Mr Buckland told Sky News: “A light has now been shone on an appalling litany of abuse and I’m glad to hear that the National Crime Agency (NCA) is now conducting an investigation. It’s got a lot of power to bring in various agencies to start the work of an investigation into this.

“Modern-day slavery is all around us, it’s in every town and city in Britain and indeed in our rural areas as well, it takes many forms.

“This type of exploitation, people being paid well below under the minimum wage, having to work in unacceptable conditions, that sort of abuse has to be stamped out, it has to be examined, we have to follow the evidence and prosecute wherever possible.”

A report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank and Justice and Care UK charity said: “Nobody knows the true scale and cost of the crime, but based on a new police data analysis tool we believe there could be at least 100,000 victims in the UK, with the actual number likely to be even greater.”

The organisation called on the Government to update its assessment of the size of the problem “and the cost to the taxpayer”.

Mr Buckland said tackling the problem “is not a job that’s going to take weeks, it’s going to take a long time but I welcome the investigation”.

He added: “We have been increasingly aware of the horror of modern-day slavery throughout our country and the various forms that it takes, lots of investigations have happened and more prosecutions have occurred, we strengthened the law as a Government two or three years ago.

“I think that as people have the confidence to come forward, to blow the whistle to tell their story we will have even more evidence in order to help stamp out this appalling abuse.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel has concerns that agencies turned a blind eye to exploitation in Leicester’s textile warehouses and factories over fears about “cultural sensibilities”, the Sunday Times reported.

She is considering introducing new laws on modern slavery amid concern at working conditions at some suppliers to so-called fast fashion businesses, the newspaper said.

Ms Patel has welcomed the CSJ report, but the Home Office said there is no evidence to confirm its larger estimate of the number of victims.

Figures published by the Home Office in April showed some 10,627 potential victims of trafficking, slavery and forced labour were identified last year under the National Referral Mechanism.

Ms Patel said: “The Centre for Social Justice’s report contains important findings on modern slavery and the Home Office will be looking at it closely.

“While the Modern Slavery Act was groundbreaking in tackling this heinous crime, we are just getting started in the fight to rid this evil from the United Kingdom.

“It is why I am embarking on an ambitious transformation of the National Referral Mechanism to ensure it focuses on people and not process – giving vulnerable victims the support they need to move on with their lives.”

Boohoo had more than £1 billion wiped from its share value in two days after an article alleged that workers in a Leicester factory making clothes destined for Boohoo were being paid as little as £3.50 an hour.

Quiz said it would terminate its relationships with suppliers that do not live up to its code of practice.

Richard Jones, head of policy and regulatory engagement at the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said: “Increased attention on the wellbeing and management of factory workers is much-needed and welcome and must extend into supply chains.

“IOSH continues to call for improved due diligence and supply chain transparency; licensing of the garment industry; effective enforcement; and consideration of a quality mark for good work conditions.”

Leicester, which is currently under a local lowdown, became the first place in England to have tighter restrictions reimposed on June 30, after an increase in Covid-19 infections was recorded.

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