Expert Voice

"The more we look, the more we find" - Is this really the best way to reduce human trafficking?

17 August 2017

Speaking about the increasing numbers of people identified as victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK, the British National Crime Agency (NCA)’s Vulnerabilities Director Will Kerr stated that “the more we look, the more we find" (BBC News, “Modern Slavery and trafficking ‘in every UK town and city’”, 10 August 2017). This statement highlights both the extent of the problem and the limitations of relying on law enforcement alone to combat it. 

By Claire Healy and William Huddleston  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you look for more trafficking victims, you will indeed find them. This means more investigations and, if the investigations and prosecutions are effective, more convictions of traffickers. The implication is that an effective response to human trafficking can be reduced to a simple formula of “look more, find more”. This translates into allocating greater resources to law enforcement and court cases against traffickers, applying a “command and control” approach.

As a form of crime prevention, this approach relies solely the potential deterrent effect on traffickers of the increased likelihood of detection. It will be limited in its effects if it is not accompanied with additional measures to prevent trafficking for labour exploitation from taking place, by creating more “obstacles” to exploitation in the labour market.

Exploitation is one of the defining elements of human trafficking. Without exploitation as the purpose, there is no trafficking crime. According to the NCA, human trafficking is being perpetrated “in plain sight” in various sectors of the UK labour market: “food processing, fishing, agriculture, construction, domestic and care workers and car washes”. These are the sectors where the opportunities and spaces for exploitation to take place should be reduced, and where the resilience to trafficking of individual workers should be built up.

This is one of the recommendations of a multi-country study on the dynamics of supply and demand in the human trafficking “business model”. When asked how to better prevent human trafficking, labour inspectors across the EU argued that reducing the opportunities for exploitation in the labour market through the deterrent effect of inspections and sanctions also reduces the incentive to recruit people into exploitative labour relations. The extent to which this is effective depends on three factors: the scope of regulations that grant labour inspectorates the power to impose sanctions and remedies; the likelihood of inspections and detection taking place; and the appropriateness and severity of sanctions imposed on offenders.

The enforcement of labour rights must be complemented with long-term thinking that better acknowledges the role of poor working conditions and weak protection for workers in allowing human trafficking to occur. Therefore, strengthening commitments to protect workers’ rights and ensure labour standards are a crucial contribution to reducing opportunities for exploitation.

The number of convictions of members of criminal groups involved in modern slavery is increasing in the UK, and yet profits are still being made, and goods produced using exploitative labour still frequently find their way into the supply chains of larger businesses. Private firms must take greater responsibility and show leadership in ensuring that their supply chains are compliant. This means not only liability for violations, but also taking an active role in ensuring that supply chains are free from exploitation. Government policies should support companies in improving conditions for their direct employees, and for workers within their supply chains, and combine this with meaningful enforcement regimes when they do not comply.

Genuine worker participation is critical: Wherever possible, trade unions and other workers’ organizations should be involved in formulating, implementing and monitoring initiatives to address exploitation in the workplace.

Finally, a broader commitment to protect the rights of workers - both national citizens and migrants - and to enforce labour standards through public regulation is crucial. Practices associated with human trafficking and modern slavery do not take place in a vacuum. Proactive initiatives by the private sector can complement regulations, but they cannot substitute them.

The recent transformation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority into the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) and the inclusion of the Transparency in Supply Chains provision in UK legislation are steps in the right direction. The bolstering of the GLAA with a wider mandate and additional powers suggests that UK policy is beginning to acknowledge the role of unregulated sectors of the labour market and poor working conditions in allowing modern slavery to continue.

The fact that the NCA has found many more cases of trafficking than previously estimated is evidence of the progress the UK has made in identifying trafficking, since the passing of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015. The doubling of the number of identified victims in the past three years indicates that the issue is being treated as a priority and receiving appropriate resources. The UK government claims to have taken “world-leading action” to combat trafficking, by passing new legislation, engaging with the NGO sector on this topic, and lobbying for the inclusion of actions against human trafficking in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Unfortunately, law enforcement actions alone will ultimately have limited success in reducing the number of people who are exploited and trafficked in the UK. This “look more, find more” approach should not be prioritised at the expense of attempts to increase the barriers to exploitation: build the resilience of workers to exploitation in general and reduce the viability of exploitation in sectors of the UK labour market where modern slavery takes place.


Claire Healy is Research Officer at the Anti-Trafficking Unit in ICMPD. William Huddleston is Junior Project Officer at the Anti-Trafficking Unit in ICMPD. 

Related Links: 

Modern slavery and trafficking 'in every UK town and city', BBC News, 10 August 2017

Recommendations taken from the DemandAT research project: Principles for Addressing Trafficking, Forced Labour and Slavery in Supply Chains: POLICY BRIEF #1