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Northern Ireland police identifying more victims of modern slavery

Out-Law News | 25 Oct 2019 | 9:34 am | 2 min. read

Police in Northern Ireland have detected a "sharp increase" in modern slavery over the past six months, with increasing numbers of victims identified and referred to the National Referral Mechanism.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has referred on 54 cases since April 2019, compared to 33 cases over the same period last year and 59 cases in total over the 2018-19 financial year. It published the figures to coincide with Anti-Slavery Day last week, along with a warning to the public to be aware of common signs of modern slavery and exploitation.

Detective Inspector Mark Bell, from PSNI's Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, described modern slavery as "one of the fastest growing crime types in the UK".

"Many potential victims have been identified as a result of our proactive operations so the actual number of people in Northern Ireland affected by the crime is unknown as it often goes unreported and undetected within the community," he said.

Labour exploitation, where victims are forced to work against their will and are often unpaid, was the most common form of exploitation detected by the PSNI last year, Bell said. The police had identified victims working in car washes, food manufacturing and processing factories and in brothels, he said.

Regulatory law expert Laura Gillespie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said that the figures showed the "clearly real and present" risk of modern slavery across the UK.

"With many corporates having to report on their efforts in tackling the issue within their supply chains, it is clear that identifying the risks and taking steps to address them are a crucial part in any statement to be published," she said. "With environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors playing an increasing role in investment decisions, the importance of addressing these social issues is clearly a boardroom issue."

The UK's Modern Slavery Act imposes supply chain reporting requirements on organisations with a turnover or group turnover of £36 million or more which are either incorporated in the UK or carry on a business in the UK. These organisations must report annually on the steps that they have taken during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in their own business or in their supply chains.

Regulatory law expert Neil Carslaw of Pinsent Masons said that the reporting requirements had focused firms' attentions on the risks of modern slavery. The next step was for them to properly address those risks, he said.

"The UK's Modern Slavery Act and similar legislation - for example, in Australia - has increased the focus on slavery and human trafficking for corporates over the last few years," he said.

"That is not to say, however, that the risks have been adequately addressed. Companies that have published an initial policy document and transparency statement, but failed to properly assess risks and embed relevant compliance steps, should take stock. The PSNI investigation figures serve as a further reminder," he said.