An everyday story of modern slavery

WHEN you walk through to Arrivals at a British airport or travel up and down on London Underground elevators, you see advertisements for events and photographs of “Beautiful Britain.” But there are also posters warning you to look out for signs of modern slavery. The workplaces most often associated with this horrible practice are nail bars, tanning salons and fruit and vegetable picking and packing locations.

There is a tendency to believe that most of the “slaves” are people who have been trafficked into this country, from eastern Europe or the far East. But, as listeners to The Archers will know, modern slavery can be found anywhere, even in the rural idyll of Ambridge, where the consequences of a ruthless gangmaster’s actions are rippling across the whole community, destroying relationships and undermining the standing of some of the village’s most respected residents.

The story began a long time ago, with the arrival in the village of the Welsh-born builder Philip Moss and his son Gavin. The charming and kindly Philip is only too keen to do small jobs around the village, and quotes prices that are generally much lower than his competitors for larger contracts. It is not until there is a horrifying explosion at the country house hotel, Grey Gables, in which two people are nearly killed, and one of Philip’s “employees” is badly injured, that the truth begins to emerge.

The meticulous planning of this story-line – as with the equally shocking and compelling coercive control plot, which saw Helen Archer eventually nearly kill her cruel, abusive husband – means that listeners, like the Ambridge residents, are drawn in slowly. We warm to new characters, pleased to see happy relationships developing and only slowly begin to recognise the reality of abuse hiding behind a charming public face. Anyone who has experience, even at second hand, of abusive relationships, knew what was happening to Helen. But the modern slavery story was so well disguised that its eventual unravelling was as shocking to the listeners as it was to Philip’s wretched new wife, Kirsty. Anyone who had accepted the low quotations, enjoyed Philip’s company or been involved in any way with him or his son, who has pleaded guilty and spilled the poisoned beans, feels tarnished and guilty by association.

The background detail and painstaking research that went into the modern slavery plot drew on the knowledge and experience of organisations that work with victims. The three young men – taken off the street by Philip, and made to feel grateful for their food, lodging and work – are effectively prisoners, particularly after the Grey Gables explosion and then the Covid lockdown. Described as “horses’ (no better than workhorses) their lives are a combination of dependency and fear under constant surveillance. According to Hope for Justice, one of the organisations consulted for the story, traffickers can “use shame as a weapon” as well as instilling a deep fear of the police in victims. Blake, one of Moss’s “slaves”, was made to feel responsible for the Grey Gables explosion and lives in fear that he will be arrested.

Susan Banister, of Hope For Justice, says that it is quite common for vulnerable victims to feel gratitude to their traffickers: “Stockholm syndrome is very common. Very often the vulnerability that is being exploited is a desperate situation such as poverty, homelessness, just out of prison. The trafficker is offering a roof over their head, food and work. They perceive this is better than before and are told by the trafficker that they are doing them a favour.”

Television soaps like East Enders or Coronation Street are seen as gritty, realistic dramas, whereas a rural serial like The Archers is often characterised as cosy and soft-centred. The coercive control and modern slavery stories show how these cruel and abusive behaviours can and do happen anywhere.

According to the Global Slavery Index, there are as many as 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. Last year, 10,627 victims were referred to the National Referral Mechanism, a framework for identifying, referring and supporting potential modern slavery victims. Of these, 60 per cent were cases of forced labour – the fate that has befallen Blake, Kenzie and Jordan. Most people would not be able to see what is happening – but, like the residents of Ambridge, when they find out they feel implicated, guilty that they did not know what was happening.

“Modern slavery is found anywhere where there is the need for low paid labour.” says Susan Banister. Under the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, only businesses with a turnover of £36million or more are required to produce a modern slavery statement, so smaller businesses will not have the same amount of knowledge as larger businesses. “Therefore it is easier for a trafficker to hide someone in plain sight,” she says.

Hope for Justice, and another organisation, Unseen, are working to help members of the public spot signs of trafficking, remove victims from situations of exploitation and provide them with support and aftercare. Raising awareness of modern slavery in any capacity can have a significant impact on the number of referrals, says Susan Banister  “We need to help people realise that modern slavery happens everywhere. Using popular culture sparks the conversation and that is a really good thing because more people question what they are seeing.”

If you suspect someone is a victim of modern slavery, or is trafficking individuals, you should report it to the Modern Slavery Helpline or the police on 101. In an emergency situation, contact the police by phoning 999.

Fanny Charles