Across the UK, hundreds and thousands of people have experienced modern slavery and exploitation. According to one study by the Centre for Social Justice, there are currently up to 136,000 people trapped in modern slavery in the UK, though the true figure is likely higher due to under-reporting.
As a UK-wide issue, modern slavery can be found in every region, community and city around the country. The West Midlands, a region not immune to this pervasive issue, has taken a proactive stance in addressing modern slavery. In 2021, a sub-group of the West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network was formed, focusing on the crucial role universities play in combating exploitation. Their research revealed gaps in student support and a lack of training for staff, prompting the urgent need for awareness and education.
Vulnerabilities on Campus
Modern slavery is a major risk for universities across the UK to address. As mostly young people who are living away from home for the first time, students are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking themselves. With growing concerns regarding the cost of living crisis across the UK, students may be increasingly at risk of modern slavery if they are struggling financially. Evidence shows that students are especially likely to be subjected to forced sexual exploitation and county lines during their time at university.
In addition, international students have been identified as one of the most at risk groups of modern slavery, with reports of several cases where overseas students have vanished from courses and then been found working in exploitative conditions. Cultural differences, misuse of student visas, and the vulnerability that comes with an expired visa post-study contribute to their heightened risk.
University staff, especially those engaged in ‘unskilled labour’ on-site, are also susceptible. High-risk categories include construction, catering, cleaning, security, and maintenance. Issues such as inaccurate confirmation of the right to work, non-payment of the living wage, and outsourcing to third parties elevate the risk of modern slavery within university premises.
The Call to Action
Recognising the gravity of the situation, the West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network and It’s a Penalty have joined forces to establish the West Midlands Slavery Free Campus Alliance (WMSFCA). Guided by the Slavery Free Campus Blueprint from Nottingham Rights Lab, this alliance aims to create slavery-free university campuses.
A pivotal initiative within this alliance is the West Midlands Modern Slavery Prevention Hub, an online resource hub launched in October 2023. Produced by It’s a Penalty in collaboration with the West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network and with support from Health Education England, the Hub serves as a comprehensive repository of information and resources for students, staff, and universities.
Shaping a Slavery-Free Future
The Modern Slavery Prevention Hub is a critical tool for empowering university communities to address modern slavery risks. It equips students and staff with essential knowledge, ensuring they can identify, respond to, and prevent instances of exploitation. The hub focuses on raising awareness, advocating for frontline course training, and making key recommendations for universities to enhance their responses to modern slavery.
As the alliance gains momentum, the West Midlands Slavery Free Campus Alliance strives to bridge gaps in support, education, and training, reinforcing the commitment to a slavery-free future. It is a call to action for universities across the UK to collectively stand against the pervasive threat of modern slavery, safeguarding the well-being of their students and staff. Through collaborative efforts, education, and advocacy, these institutions can become beacons of change in the fight against one of the world’s fastest-growing crimes.
Written by Elizabeth Speller
Advocacy Director, It’s a Penalty