The increased risk of modern slavery due to conflict and displacement of migrant workers

October 21, 2022 8:28 am, Published by , Leave your thoughts

On 24th February 2022, shockwaves were sent round the world when Russia invaded Ukraine. The United Nations estimates that 7.7 million people, mostly women and children, have fled Ukraine to find safety. As part of anti-slavery week 2022, Bethan Hunt, Stronger Together’s UK Programmes Manager, reflects on the increased risk of modern slavery due to conflict and displacement of migrant workers. She writes today’s blog on this highly important theme, including showcasing the range of resources Stronger Together has produced to support businesses to reduce and eradicate these risks in their own operations and supply chains.

As part of my role, I regularly facilitate our flagship training, Tackling Modern Slavery in UK Businesses to support workers to spot the signs of modern slavery and raise awareness of individuals most at risk of being exploited.

Bethan Hunt

At Stronger Together, our vision is a world where all workers are recruited responsibly and have fair work free from exploitation. We believe the best way to do this is to work collaboratively to mitigate risks of modern slavery and labour exploitation. To mark anti-slavery week 2022 we’re encouraging all businesses to utilise our comprehensive range of free resources to play their part in ending modern slavery.

Modern slavery is a broad umbrella term encompassing several offences including human trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude.  Whilst these offences vary in nature, they all involve one person depriving another person of their liberty to exploit them for personal or commercial gain. As anti-slavery week highlights, we may have hoped and expected for slavery to be an issue confined to history, as it was abolished in the UK in 1833. Yet it remains a large-scale issue globally, with the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery at nearly 50 million people. Here in the UK, the National Crime Agency’s most recent estimate is 100,000 individuals every year- with its prevalence evident in every town and city in the UK.

What makes someone exploitable?

There are a wide range of individuals accessing and being referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework to support survivors of modern slavery – with individuals ranging in gender, nationality, age and location. Exploitation doesn’t discriminate.

However, there are specific characteristics and circumstances where individuals are at higher risk and are more vulnerable to exploitation. These include homelessness, poverty, dependence on alcohol or drugs, language barriers, having an irregular immigration status or being geographically displaced. Criminals and exploiters will ultimately target any vulnerabilities that enable them to have control over another person; with their main focus being how they can maximise profits from their activities. Unfortunately, for those who can be classified as the most vulnerable, they may consider that the exploitative conditions they experience are a better alternative to their existing livelihoods. They may feel that they do not have a choice due to experiencing coercion or fear from threats of violence and intimidation.

How can we support those who have fled from conflict?

It was therefore sadly anticipated that shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, The European Parliament and the International Organisation for Migration quickly raised the alarm of the exponential risks ‘of human trafficking and exploitation, especially of the most vulnerable persons’. Millions of people have been displaced both within the borders of Ukraine and Russia, across neighbouring countries, into Europe and the UK in search of safety. Many of these individuals are women, elderly people and children, some of whom are unaccompanied, as men aged 18-60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine to fight against the Russian invasion.

Many are traumatised by their experiences, and will have had to leave their partners, family, and friends in dangerous and precarious situations. Some will have been led to believe that their only option is to use informal or dangerous transport to enable them to cross borders. Their vulnerabilities may leave them with no option but to place trust in strangers, some of whom will exploit this faith and the incredibly challenging circumstances they are in, for their own financial or personal gain. For those in search of employment, they may be unaware of their rights and protections, and may believe that recruitment fees are legal in the UK.

Furthermore, these acts place them at risk by enabling exploiters to force them into debt and trap them. The latest Global Estimates highlight that ‘debt bondage’ accounts for one-fifth of individuals in situations of forced labour, with many living in fear of violence if they are unable to meet repayments, and unpaid debt being passed onto their family members.  Displaced individuals may also be exposed to exploitative employers who force them to work in unsafe conditions, with inappropriate equipment, accommodation or under poor employment conditions.

What guidance is there available to businesses and organisations? Are there any specific resources that would be a good starting point?

We have created a practical guide for UK businesses, employers, labour providers and recruiters to ensure that workers affected by this conflict are protected from harm, supported in extremely difficult circumstances and have a positive recruitment and employment experience.

Our Ukrainian resources are free to download on our website

It is important to acknowledge that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is not the only global conflict occurring and having a negative impact on workers. Our resources and information apply to other conflict settings and responding to the risks of workers fleeing conflict, including understanding employment rights in the UK, responsible recruitment toolkit guidance on ensuring recruitment fees aren’t paid by workers and supporting businesses to take action to eradicate modern slavery through our toolkit

Our flagship video, Daniel and Weronicka’s story is available to download for free on our website, or accessible on Youtube. Many businesses use this in their induction processes, and at regular intervals to empower workers to spot the signs of labour exploitation. Using videos and storytelling allows us to ensure that the voices of survivors and their experiences are honestly represented as accurately as possible. We know from past cases that an individual experiencing modern slavery realising their own situation and seeking help through survivor focused organisations or law enforcement bodies is a vital route for removing individuals from these situations.

How can businesses display Stronger Together resources effectively?

Stronger Together has a range of worker posters that we encourage businesses to place around their sites detailing the signs of modern slavery. Consider placing these posters in discrete locations, for example on the back of toilet doors and anywhere that workers will have privacy. These worker posters are now available in Ukrainian and Russian and free to download.

Take a look at our resources page for further information. Which Stronger Together resource will you use for starting your journey to a fair world free from exploitation?

To see how we can support your business, or to enquire about any of the topics and resources mentioned in this article, contact us on


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