Modern slavery is a serious and organised crime. Across many areas of criminality, organised crime groups (OCGs) are shifting away from large and risky shipments of illicit commodities like cocaine, towards low risk and high frequency activity, such as small, regular shipments of legal commodities. Slavery capitalises on a similar business model, with victims often moving willingly, openly and legally, lured by offers of employment that are not what they seem.
Well-established human trafficking networks can also abuse immigration loopholes, using false documents to bring large numbers of people into the UK for exploitation. In contrast to commodities that are sold once, criminal groups continue to profit from the people they control. Whether they are subject to sexual or labour exploitation, criminal groups pocket the revenue. With many victims kept in dire conditions, the expenses of facilitating exploitation are low. The complicity of those that access these services also minimises the risk of detection. All of these factors conspire to create a profitable, well-organised criminal industry spanning brothels, farms, factories, car washes, nail bars and petty criminality.
There is growing evidence of the role of organised crime. A 2015 report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) found that much of the modern slavery in Europe is driven by OCGs. Similarly, in Mexico, it is estimated that 70% of modern slavery cases involve organised criminality.
Acknowledging modern slavery as an organised crime issue emphasises the criminals that facilitate and profit from slavery, seeking to identify and pursue them through the criminal justice system. This perspective is beginning to gain traction. Tackling organised criminality is now a core element of the UK’s strategy: a dedicated unit with the National Crime Agency’s Organised Crime Command leads and coordinates the law enforcement response, while the Modern Slavery Act includes specific provisions to target slave drivers.
Combatting the organised crime that facilitates modern slavery is important and urgently needed. However, if this approach is to have a substantial and lasting impact, the lessons from tackling other areas of organised crime must not be overlooked.
A Tailor-Made, Not Ready-Made Toolbox
There is a risk that responses will rely on a ready-made toolbox. Debates are underway to expand that toolbox, introducing less traditional responses such as development programmes that prevent and undermine criminality. Yet, the main strategies to combat organised crime are still drawn primarily from counter-narcotics programmes, relying on arrests and seizures, without tailoring the response to reflect past lessons.
Even within responses to drug trafficking, arresting perpetrators is controversial – which perpetrators being the key question. Easy arrests can be made by intercepting mules, but the majority are victims of economic circumstance, with their arrest barely a ripple in the trafficking chain. Steady streams of recruits are ready to take their place, willing to risk detention for the chance to earn money. The high level criminals that facilitate and control the trade are usually far removed.
The dynamics of modern slavery are similarly opaque. The CSJ report outlined several cases that involved ‘power pyramids’, with ‘divisions of foot soldiers who will play their role in whichever division they are employed to operate within to recruit, transit or run the daily management of controlling victims’.
To address these challenges, arrests have often targeted kingpins, or those believed to be at the top of these power pyramids. This strategy aims to weaken criminal groups by disrupting their operations and structure. In many instances, however, the result has been much more violent. The kingpin strategy deployed in Mexico between 2006 and 2012 captured or killed more than two dozen major cartel members, but also gave Mexico a warlike reputation as over 60,000 people were killed in the fallout. Although this level of violence has so far been limited to the drugs trade, the removal of a kingpin will leave a void to be filled internally or by other OCGs.
The danger of violent repercussions is even more pronounced when the trafficked commodity is a human being. Moreover, the nature of the commodity prevents the use of valuable investigative techniques such as controlled deliveries that seek to identify the recipient of illicit goods. Because of the risk to those subject to slavery, investigations are also more urgent, meaning that police and other agencies can be forced to intervene earlier in order to protect victims; evidence that could be gained through surveillance and other covert tactics then becomes less useful, as the OCG is aware that their operations are being monitored.
A further lesson from other forms of organised crime stems from the ‘balloon effect’: effective law enforcement operations have been seen to displace drug trafficking routes rather than halting the activity, much as pressure on one end of a balloon will simply displace the contents. For modern slavery, this principle can similarly be applied to the different trafficking routes and tactics used to bring victims into the UK – both legal and illegal. However, it also has relevance to the industries where slavery is used: increased pressure in one sector may simply result in their use in new industries, as the supply is diverted rather than stemmed.
A Comprehensive Approach
There is also a positive lesson from our experience in fighting drug trafficking: the value of comprehensive approaches that address both supply and demand. Unaffected by the controversy that surrounds drug policy debates, this is already underway in relation to modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires businesses with a turnover greater than £36 million to issue a slavery and human trafficking transparency statement that outlines the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and supply chains.
The UK government’s approach therefore points to the ability to engage with modern slavery holistically, centred on an acknowledgement of the role of organised crime. This can underpin a stronger UK response, provided the broader and more difficult lessons are similarly acknowledged.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.