UK supermarket helps restore 'dignity of work' to trafficking victims

Lin Taylor, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Posted at Aug 01 2017 08:32 AM

LONDON - Stacking shelves or working on a factory production line may seem like ordinary jobs to some, but for trafficking victims newly hired at British supermarket Co-op, just being paid a decent wage to work has been a life-changing experience.

"I have a new life now, a better one. I've got good managers, good colleagues, a very good working environment," said Victor, who was trafficked from Romania.

In the first employment program of its kind, Co-op and anti-trafficking charity CityHearts launched 'Bright Future' in March, and have plans to offer work to 30 trafficking victims this year. So far, 9 men and women have accepted jobs at the supermarket's stores or warehouses.

Victor, who declined to give his full name or say how he had been trafficked and exploited, has worked at a factory with Co-op for 5 months.

"I love the UK, I would like to live and work here. I want to keep this job," he said in a telephone interview through an interpreter.

In Britain, there are an estimated 13,000 victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, most of them from Albania, Nigeria, Poland and Vietnam.

Nearly 46 million people are enslaved globally, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

In 2015, Britain passed tough anti-slavery legislation introducing life sentences for traffickers and forcing companies to disclose what they are doing to ensure their supply chains are free from slavery.

Britain's Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland said more businesses should follow the supermarket's lead and offer "the dignity of work" to trafficking victims across the country.

"Good work opportunities give them dignity and allow them to be part of the community again. It prevents them from being re-trafficked, it prevents them from being homeless," said Hyland.

"If we don't improve the victims' support, it will hinder the whole fight against modern slavery."

TRANSFORMATION

Paul Gerrard, Co-op's policy and campaigns director, said British companies had a moral obligation to help victims and should go beyond what's legally required under the Modern Slavery Act.

"If we could offer these people work, it will allow them to reclaim their lives and that's the important thing," he added.

"... this should be about UK businesses stepping up and doing more to help victims of modern slavery."

CityHeart support worker Kirsty Hart said ordinary, paid work was transformative for many of the people she helped.

"It's just amazing to see the transformation of clients before and after, and for them to take control of their lives. It's very powerful," she said.

This rings true for Janusz, who was trafficked from Poland but was given a job with the supermarket a month ago.

"My life has changed 100 percent because the job gives me the prospect of a normal life in the UK," said Janusz, who did not want to give his full name or details of how he was trafficked.

"The job allows me to be independent. (It) offers me hope for the future."