Klára Skřivánková: In modern slavery the shackles are often in the mind

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek

Klára Skřivánková is UK and Europe Programme Manager for Anti-Slavery International, which describes itself as the world’s oldest human rights organisation. Skřivánková is an expert on human trafficking and frequently gives court testimony in modern slavery cases. When we spoke at Anti-Slavery’s offices in London, the conversation took in various forms of modern slavery, what can be done to combat it and what companies should do if they discover forced labour in their supply chains.

Klára Skřivánková,  photo: archive of Anti-Slavery International
“In our everyday lives we can come across slavery in, for example, the service industries.

“People who would be cleaning offices can be in forced labour.

“In the UK we have a lot of concern over car washes, so people, mainly migrant workers, who wash cars by hand. Or people who work in nail bars.

“There are also concerns over people who work in agriculture.

“So if you think of any industries that are labour intensive and not particularly well-paid, and where we tend to have a lot of temporary or migrant labour, these are the industries where we would see people being in a situation of forced labour.

“And of course added to that we would have people who are trafficked for the purpose of forced prostitution.

“Or, here in the UK, people who are trafficked into cannabis factories, mainly young children and men trafficked from Vietnam to grow cannabis in private houses.

“There is also an interesting connection with the Czech Republic there, because many of them go via the Czech Republic or would have been exploited in the Czech Republic in one way or another before they ended up in the UK.”

As regards people in low-paying jobs, how does that work? Are they brought over here by criminal gangs from their countries of origin?

“Sometimes they are recruited in their countries of origin, and there tends to be a connection with a national.

“But many people actually end up being exploited and trafficked once they are in the UK.

“Sometimes people fall on hard times, or they are people who are particularly vulnerable and find themselves in a situation where they are targeted by those who want to take advantage.

“I think it’s important to highlight that a lot of people who are involved in the exploitation of others wouldn’t be criminal masterminds or mafia-like structures.

“If we base our economies on outsourcing and eroding basic protection for workers, that is against the principles of creating a space where it’s more difficult to abuse others.”

“Often they’re just individuals who take advantage of gaps in law and policy that basically make it permissible to take advantage of somebody else and put them into a situation of exploitation.”

Maybe this is a naïve question, but if somebody is in this situation, for example in London, why can’t they just walk away?

“That is a very common question, because slavery today doesn’t involve, in most cases, locked doors or shackles on people’s hands or feet.

“I usually describe it as shackles in one’s mind.

“It usually involves a sophisticated web of coercion, violence, manipulation, psychological pressure, threats. Also debt bondage.

“What you’ll often find is that the individual is bonded through money that they owe to somebody else.

“That somebody says, You’ll work for me and says, This is what you’ll do – and if you don’t, I’ll harm you. Or, I know where your family lives – I’ll harm them.

“So you don’t actually have to physically force someone into a situation of slavery.

“Sometimes, yes, people will be able to come and go, or from the outsider’s perspective it would seem like they are able to come and go, but effectively they can’t.”

Are there particular countries in Europe where this is more common, where the numbers are greater?

“That’s an interesting question because we always talk about numbers being high or low. But actually, what do the numbers represent?

“We don’t know whether they represent a true picture, or whether they represent our ability to identify. So high numbers can mean both.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
“But generally we’re talking about in the range of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands across the whole of the EU.

“So it is a problem that certainly is significant and requires the attention of each and every government.”

What can governments to do combat it? Or what are they doing to combat it?

“Many governments unfortunately think that it’s just an issue of crime fighting or public order.

“So they put in place legislation and then encourage the police to go and catch criminals.

“And while the enforcement element is extremely important, the aspect of prevention and the protection of those who are either the victim of slavery, or at risk, are equally important.

“Just to give you an example, if you deregulate the labour market to the extreme where you as an employer have a once in 500 years chance that you’ll be subject to a labour inspection – which is data that comes from a report that was just published in the UK – then of course there will be those who will be cutting corners.

“Because the risks from that to you as an individual and as a business is very low, because the enforcement isn’t there.

“If we base our economies on outsourcing and eroding basic protection for workers by making more precarious labour through temporary contracts and what we call the gig economy, again that is against the principles of creating a space where it’s more difficult to abuse others.”

Tell us about slavery in the Czech Republic.

“The Czech Republic, like other countries in Central Europe, has undergone a lot of changes in the last 15, 20 years.

“What we are seeing is more and more dependency on cheap migrant labour.

“And that’s precisely the area where governments should be looking.

“Every business that does business internationally these days has a high likelihood of slavery being somewhere in their supply chain.”

“We’ve had cases of trafficking for forced labour in the Czech agriculture. There was a famous case that involved asparagus farms not too far away from Prague.

“So it’s very similar to other European countries. Where we find a high concentration of workers who are less protected, that’s where we would be looking for situations of modern slavery.

“Of course there are also concerns over trafficking for sexual exploitation, although my understanding is that it’s not as high as it was before.

“And there cases in the past in the Czech Republic, I’m not sure if this is current concern as well, of trafficking for forced begging and petty crime in the streets of children and disable individuals, particularly from Southeastern Europe.”

Could you speak about this other aspect of your work, which is multinational companies outsourcing to other people in other states where there is less stringent human rights enforcement.

“What we are trying to do is to work with businesses in a sort of critical friend capacity.

“There are a lot of large businesses, such as Mondelez International, one of the big confectionary companies, which also owns several favourite Czech brands.

“I think Opavia might be a Mondelez brand [it is]. So, some of the famous Czech sweets would fall under that umbrella.

“And they are one of the companies that have now publicly acknowledged the challenge.

“I think that every business that does business internationally these days has a high likelihood of slavery being somewhere in their supply chain.

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek
“The issue of having that risk in your supply chain isn’t the biggest problem. The question is what are you doing about it?

“Are you aware of it? Are you proactively looking for it? And if you find the situation or the risk, what do you do about it?

“The wrong thing would be to cut ties or to go away. The right thing is to engage with your supply chain to improve the situation.

“For example, if we are talking about cocoa farms, engage proactively with the communities to deal with issues of child labour and understand what the drivers behind it are.

“If you talk about the garment supply chain where people are bonded, you need to understand why is the bondage happening and you need to be acknowledging that challenge and working to resolve it.

“So we are working with some businesses precisely to develop programmes and work in a multi-stakeholder manner to improve the working conditions for workers in the supply chains.

“There are a lot of myths. For instance, that consumers should boycott this and boycott that.

“But actually we would very rarely as an organisation advocate boycotts, because they do more harm than good.

“If you’ve got poor communities that rely on an income and you cut off that income, you’re actually harming those people.

“Whereas if you try to improve the situation they are in, and that would raise their income or improve the working conditions, that is the right way forward.

“We would very rarely as an organisation advocate boycotts, because they do more harm than good.”

“That’s something that takes time. But I’m encouraged by the number of businesses that are now opening willing to discuss challenges around modern slavery and engage in a positive way.”

Do you feel there’s any kind of trend in slavery? Is it getting worse, is it getting better, is it static?

“I think that’s a question where I don’t think it would be helpful to give an answer one way or the other.

“What we know it’s still a significant problem.

“And for an individual in a situation of forced labour in the fields of Lincolnshire, it doesn’t actually matter it’s 36 million or 40 million people globally in slavery – that one individual is feeling it today.

“I think when it comes to these things, often big numbers cause an outcry in the media.

“But what I would like to see is the media challenging the governments time and time again about what they are really doing.

“If they have rescued 500 people, where are these 500 people two weeks down the line? Have they been deported, or are they detained? Or are they able to seek compensation?

“So I think the real issue is if we know about situations of slavery, how are we challenging those in a position of power to change that situation, to actually do that?”

How do you find working in this area? Is it depressing? Is it rewarding?

“It’s a combination of both. I think you probably get quite cynical over time.

“But it certainly is rewarding when you are able to assist an individual.

Illustrative photo: Czech Television
“I’ve done that with our partners as well as directly, helping people bring cases in court.

“But also when you finally achieve a systemic change, so when you get government to come around and actually engage seriously with the issue, improve their laws, improve their policies, or if a business openly is saying, We will work on issues of slavery and publish lists of all of the factories that we source from, so everybody can go in and see what we do, these are really significant achievements.

“They enable the transparency and the visibility that we need so that people can’t hide behind anonymity.”