The United Kingdom is seen by migrants as the promised land. Many are prepared to embark on a perilous journey to get there. But on arrival, they often find that life is not what they expected. Some even discover working conditions resembling slavery.
LONDON — Huong was full of dreams. “I thought I’d live like a queen in the United Kingdom, that I’d eat well, that I’d be well-dressed and find an easy job with a high salary,” the Vietnamese young woman recalls. Her neighbors had a close relation who emigrated to the UK and regularly sent them money. “They built a beautiful house and bought themselves a huge car,” she remembers.
So she went on a quest for a migration agent. The British dream is the cause of a migration wave during which thousands of migrants from impoverished countries risk it all to reach the British shores. At the end of this perilous journey, far from finding the Holy Grail they had hoped for, many fall into the clutches of traffickers, having to work in conditions of modern slavery.
Between October 2020 and 2021, a dedicated body set up by the government identified 10,613 victims, almost twice as many as in 2017. Among these victims, 47% were below 18. “They are usually teenagers old enough to work, between 14 and 18 years old,” says Daniel Silverstone, a criminologist at Liverpool John Moores University who has studied this phenomenon. This is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Global Slavery Index, there are more than 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. The most represented nationalities are Vietnam, Albania and some Eastern Europe countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, according to British government figures.
How trafficking starts
In these migrants’ home countries, the UK appears as a first choice destination. “They believe that streets are paved with gold here. The fact that we speak English, like most migrants do, also plays an important role,” says Kathy Betteridge, the Director for Anti Trafficking and Modern Slavery at The Salvation Army.
Fake job ads posted on social media like Facebook by traffickers to recruit victims mention salaries between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds ($2,500 and $5,000) a month. “A fortune in these countries, where the average wage rarely exceeds a few hundred euros, '' explains Adam Hewitt from the NGO Hope for Justice. “We can add to that the attractiveness of many sectors such as construction, agriculture, nail salons or car wash facilities, which are poorly regulated.” And since Brexit, they do not risk being sent back to their first country of arrival on European soil, in accordance with the Dublin Regulation.
Traffickers are particularly talented at identifying vulnerable people. Piotr had been unemployed for several years when a friend offered to help him find a job in the UK. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to try and get my life back on track,” the young Pole recalls. The first point of contact is often through an acquaintance, a cousin or a neighbor, who puts the future migrant in touch with the trafficking networks. Piotr’s friend, who had already emigrated to the UK, put him in contact with another man in his home country who organized everything. “He told me he would find me a job and pay for my transportation,” he says.
The victim usually pays a tidy sum beforehand to cover travel expenses. “This forces them to raise funds by selling their house or borrowing money from a pawnbroker who charges them an exorbitant interest rate,” explains Diane Truong, from the NGO Pacific Links Foundation. Huong had to pay $25,000 to an agent over five years ago. Prices have kept increasing since. The journey from Vietnam to the UK is now worth around $52,500, according to several experts.
The job I was promised never became a reality.
Poor salaries and living conditions
Until recently, migrants from Eastern Europe simply came by coaches, on a Schengen visa. “I crossed the border legally, using my own passport,” Piotr says. Ever since Brexit came into effect, migrants get a three-month visitor visa, then overstay. Huong traveled by plane and by car, then hid in the back of a truck. She doesn’t know what countries she crossed, but it took her two months. Like most migrants who arrived illegally in the country, she was given a number to call when she arrived, but there was no one on the line. “The job I was promised never became a reality,” she says with disappointment. She ended up going back home, empty-handed. She is one of the lucky ones.
Upon arrival, many of these migrants are picked up by traffickers when they call the number they were given. “Others are recruited outside of asylum seeker centers by a fellow countryman who invites them for dinner and then offer to find them a job,” says Andrew Wallis from the NGO Unseen. Still others find a job on one of the online platforms reserved for the diaspora, like Viethome, a portal for Vietnamese migrants in the UK, which hosts dozens of ads.
The working conditions they find on the British job market vary greatly. The majority of these migrants are paid below minimum wage (8.91 pounds per hour, or $11), but they are free to move around. They see it as an opportunity to get a foot on the ladder, hoping to subsequently land a better paid job. But a small proportion end up in a situation close to slavery. “They can be found in poorly regulated industries, which offer excessively cheap services and who transact mostly in cash,” Wallis adds.
When you enter a nail salon on a crowded avenue in Hackney, a working class neighborhood in East London, your throat is irritated by the pungent smell of shellac, a gel used as nail polish. Three Vietnamese employees — a man and two women who look like they’re barely in their twenties — are busy doing the manicures of clients sitting in pale pink, worn-out faux leather chairs. In a corner of the room, a small Buddhist temple is adorned with offerings of bananas and tangerines. “A manicure costs 10 pounds, a pedicure 12 pounds,” yells the owner, a middle-aged Asian lady who is shelling beans behind her counter. “We only take cash!”
Vietnamese grieving the death of his brother, found dead in a lorry in Essex, Britain
Forced training and work
Nail salons have become a hotspot for trafficking victims from Vietnam. “They are forced to work twelve hours a day, six days a week, for a pittance which rarely exceeds 100 pounds a week,” says Mimi Vu, a Vietnamese expert of human trafficking. Since most of these migrants are indebted to traffickers for their travel expenses, made worse by the exorbitant interest rates which can go up to 1,000%. “Some don’t get more than 20 pounds a week,” she adds.
I was afraid of getting beaten up.
Thang, a Vietnamese orphan who left his country after an altercation with the police, recalls that when he arrived in the UK, he was locked in a room where he was taught how to paint nails. Once he completed his training, he had to work in two different shops for 6.5 pounds ($8) an hour. But he had to give some of this money to his traffickers to pay for his accommodation, a tiny, filthy apartment shared with twelve other victims. “I thought that everybody was in cahoots, so I didn’t dare complain about my situation,” he recalls. “I was afraid of getting beaten up.”
Car wash facilities, where a full cleaning service rarely costs more than 12 pounds, recycling centers and companies that take on small constructions for individuals such as roof repairs, are other high-risk industries which notably employ men from Romania, Poland or Bulgaria. When he arrived in the UK, Piotr was taken to a house already hosting about 20 people and his passport was confiscated. “It was too crowded, I had to sleep in a room with five other men on a mattress directly on the floor,” he says. “There was no heating.”
The following morning, he was put to work in a recycling center. “Days were long, work was hard and it smelled terrible,” he says. A few days later, a trafficker took him to a bank and helped him open a bank account. When his credit card arrived, it was confiscated. “I found myself working without a salary because it was being paid into my account, which I could not access,” he says. In addition, he was told he owed money to compensate for his commute, food and travel expenses. “I felt trapped, but I was too afraid of the traffickers to run away,” he admits.
No choice but illegal activities
His unfortunate experience is by no means unique. Lawyer Philippa Southwell, who has assisted many trafficking victims, says once had as clients about 15 men from Eastern Europe who were housed in a work site shed by their boss. “They had to share a bucket to go to the bathroom and they only received alcohol and energy drinks as salary. Many of them had lost all their teeth.”
The employer usually does not suspect anything or chooses to look the other way.
Some of these trafficking victims work in a poultry farm, a logistics center or a hotel, all respectable, well-established companies. “They are hired through recruitment firms and the trafficker controls the bank account on which they get paid," says Neil Giles from the NGO Stop The Traffik. "The employer usually does not suspect anything or chooses to look the other way.”
Some of the migrants who took their chance on the British soil are left with no choice but to engage in illegal activities such as shoplifting, prostitution or cannabis cultivation. Ba, a heavily indebted Vietnamese man who was lured to the UK by the promise of a “gardening” job, found out upon arrival that he would actually have to tend to cannabis plants. Locked in an industrial warehouse in Northern Ireland, he spent his days watering and spraying fertilizer on hundreds of plants lit by artificial light in sweltering heat and humidity. “I slept on an old mattress on the floor and I was brought food only once a week," he says. "I never got paid.” He was only released when the police raided this illegal cannabis plantation.
Victims of violence and abandonment
Dozens of those illegal farms exist in the UK, in barns or former nuclear bunkers in rural zones, or in the basements of residential houses in the suburbs of major cities. “They supply the British market, where cannabis consumption remains illegal, and are controlled by Vietnamese gangs who do not hesitate to deploy minors,” Southwell says. Between 2012 and 2015, the police intercepted 149 Vietnamese children on cannabis farms. Conditions there are apocalyptic.
Nanda, a young Vietnamese man who fled his country after having taken part in an anti-government protest, spent several months locked in an industrial warehouse where the windows were covered with black plastic. “I could not tell days apart from nights,” he says. Fed only bread and water and forced to inhale the toxic chemicals used to grow cannabis plants, he started suffering from headaches and spitting blood.
Surprisingly, those modern slaves are rarely detained against their will in these exploitative situations. “They are ruled by fear," Giles remarks. They are threatened with being reported to the police, harming their families back home or being forced to pay the debt they owe their traffickers.” The traffickers do not hesitate to make use of physical violence. When Nada tried to run away, traffickers caught him and beat him so hard they thought they had killed him and threw him out in the street. But some migrants do eventually run away. In this case, they are often intercepted by the police and deported because they are in the country illegally. “Paradoxically, many of them try to leave as soon as possible,” Truong says. Ashamed of their failure, they do not see themselves as trafficking victims — because they left voluntarily — and hope they will do better next time.
Others begin to slowly climb the British social ladder, moving from job to job, with gradually better pay and working conditions. This is the case of Piotr, who eventually escaped his traffickers and was hired in a restaurant’s kitchen for very low wages, until he discovered an NGO who helped him find accommodation and a better paid job. As for Nanda, he was taken in by a migrant aid organization who hosted him in a safe house and helped him obtain asylum. He now dreams of becoming a chef and starting a family.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.
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