SLAVERY, an emotive word, is something we thought consigned to the past. But, today, it appears to be alive and well-funded, largely through its association with human trafficking. Whips may not be cracked on backs. Bodies may not swing from trees. But, often, there is violence or its threat. And, always, there is subjugation, exploitation, coercion and control.

The scale of the problem has been revealed by the National Crime Agency (NCA), which says every large town and city in the UK is affected. It is, says the agency, “far more prevalent than previously thought”, with previous estimates of 10,000 to 13,000 victims now considered to be the tip of the iceberg. Hardened police officers have been shocked by the scale of it – and have warned that ordinary people might not have to look too far to find it themselves.

The criminal gangs, exploiting globalisation to generate massive profits internationally, have widened their areas of economic activity beyond drugs and prostitution. While the most common malpractices remain sexual exploitation, criminal activity and domestic servitude, the NCA has also highlighted other sectors such as food processing, fishing, agriculture, construction, care work, car washes, and nail bars.

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These are areas with which we might come into contact in our everyday lives, and the NCA has called for vigilance and the reporting of anything suspicious to the authorities. Obviously, this has to be kept in perspective, as there are many legitimate foreign workers in these sectors. But suspicious signs outlined by the NCA include visible signs of injuries, a distressed appearance and unusual methods of transportation to the workplace.

Victims of traffickers may have been lured into effective bondage by hollow promises of jobs, education or marriage. The worst affected live truly hellish lives. Not feeling in control is said to be the root of all stress. Usually, in our literature, it refers to short-term problems with the office, relationship or mortgage. But the loss of control occasioned by trafficking causes life-long trauma.

Cherie Blair, in her capacity as human rights barrister and anti-slavery campaigner, has said of trafficking that “rather like child abuse in the past, it’s always been there but people were not aware of it”. Well, they are now.

As indeed is the UK Government. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, promised a crackdown. That was four years ago. The problem has got worse. Amnesty International has described the Government’s approach as “not fit for purpose”. But it’s not just up to government. It is a problem for all of us.

In some quarters, it is not unheard of to muddy the waters, with talk of contracts between trafficker and trafficked. Such debt bondage is supposedly at the more benign end of the scale. But it will not do. Human trafficking is not acceptable on any level. It must be stamped out. And, while it may seem a million miles away from our comparatively comfortable lives, it may be closer to home than we think.