New study: Brits are blind to the signs of modern day slavery

  • Study released on Anti-Slavery Day (October 18) shows less than one in ten people strongly believe the true scale of slavery in the UK (8%)
  • ‘Human packaging’ placed at key locations in Hull city centre for the University of Hull’s #HiddenInPlainSight campaign
  • Kevin Hyland, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner: “This research will help policy makers and academics alike to better tailor their activities and bring an end to this injustice. I hope members of the public will stop to question the meaning behind the ‘human packaging’ they see”
  • More than half admit to not being aware of the most common signs of slavery (55%)
  • One-third of people believe it is only women who are affected when it affects men and children too
  • Despite pledges by the government, public awareness of the measures in place to tackle modern day slavery in the UK remains low (11%)
  • Businesses are failing to meet the requirement for transparency on their supply chains laid out in the Modern Slavery Act


Picture: ‘Human packaging’ left in Hull city centre on Tuesday October 18, Anti-Slavery Day, to underline the fact that modern day slavery is hiding in plain sight.

Modern slavery is hidden in plain sight

That is according to a new study* by the University of Hull and YouGov, published to mark Anti-Slavery Day (18 October). It reveals that although the majority of Brits recognise modern day slavery as both a global (73%) and UK (72%) problem, more than half (55%) admitted to not being aware of the most common signs.

The survey, commissioned by the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, examined the attitudes of 1,672 adults across the country.

It also found that whilst modern slavery is a concern for many (63%), the scale of the issue in the UK today is vastly underestimated. Less than one in ten (8%) strongly believe the true number of those trapped in slavery, which the Home Office estimates is 13,000, and a third believe it’s only women who are affected – when in reality it affects men and children too.

To draw awareness to the issue, the University of Hull is placing so-called ‘human packaging’ at key high-footfall locations throughout Hull city centre on Anti-slavery Day (October 18) as part of its #HiddenInPlainSight campaign.

“Tackling slavery remains unfinished business, here in the UK and across the world. Modern day slavery often plays out in plain sight and can be difficult to detect, especially if people don’t know what signs to look for, which our research has highlighted is the case. What’s clear is that there is still a critical amount of work still to be done to increase widespread public awareness.

“Hull is proud to have been central to an abolition movement once before, which is why the University of Hull is marking Anti-Slavery Day with our #HiddenInPlainSight campaign, taking place across the city today, which aims to highlight the plight of modern day slavery and encourage people to look twice at what is happening all around them. Modern Slavery is an issue that won’t be solved until everyone opens their eyes and commits to tough action.”

John Oldfield, Director of the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull

“This campaign by the University of Hull is both eye-catching and eye-opening. The University has not only revealed important findings, but has creatively done something about it. I hope members of the public will stop to question the meaning behind the ‘human packaging’ they see. Furthermore, I hope this poll will be the first of many; I am glad to see academics working to scope the understanding of modern slavery among adults in Great Britain, particularly their awareness of the crime and knowledge of how to respond. This research will help policy makers and academics alike to better tailor their activities and bring an end to this injustice.”

Kevin Hyland OBE, UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner

“This is a great piece of work from the University of Hull highlighting the problems surrounding modern day slavery and how it is hidden in plain sight. Modern day slavery is a massive issue in the UK and it is important that we continue to show people that there is more work to be done. The study that has been carried out by the Wilberforce Institute of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) is world leading and I am committed to supporting this campaign and its objectives”

Karl Turner, Member of Parliament for Hull East

The study also uncovered a misconception around the types of work connected with modern day slavery. Unsurprisingly, sex work and domestic labour hold the most association (84% and 64% respectively). However, modern slavery in other industries, including, agriculture (44%), retail supply chains (22%) and the beauty industry (11%), are seemingly playing out hidden in plain sight.

Which of the following jobs / industries do you associate with modern slavery:% of people who associate the job / industry with modern slavery: 
Sex work 84
Domestic servant e.g. housekeeper, cook, cleaner, nanny 64
Agriculture 44
Organ harvesting 38
Cannabis farms 35
Retail supply chains 22
Construction 20
Food 20
Beauty 11
Trade e.g. plumbing, handymen, car washing, electricians, decorators 11
Don't know 11

Despite a recent pledge by the Prime Minister that her government will lead the way in the battle against modern slavery and this month’s launch of a public awareness campaign from the Home Office, just 11% of people are actually aware of the measures in place to tackle modern slavery in the UK. And, 40% believe that UK institutions, including the government, the police and businesses, should be doing more, highlighting that there is significant work still to be done to bring modern day slavery firmly into the spotlight. 

Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, businesses with an annual turnover of £36 million or above are required to provide a statement on slavery and human trafficking in their annual report, within six months of year ends ending after March 2016. With the deadline now passed, indications are that businesses have either been unresponsive or are waiting until the last moment to put something out. Just a small percentage have come out with statements so far and according to figures from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, just 22 of these meet the minimum legal requirements.** With 95% of people prepared to switch from a product or service (of those who say that ethical concerns effect their choice of goods and services), if the provider was found to be using modern day slavery in its supply chains, a failure to take action could result in a negative backlash for the businesses in question.

“The Modern Slavery Act was just the start. Along with the ongoing support from the Prime Minister, it is a good step in the right direction, not least because it means that big businesses must now look at modern slavery within their own operations and within their supply chains, But, the government must continue to drive forward the fight against slavery across all businesses and industries, regardless of turnover.”

John Oldfield

How to spot the signs of modern slavery

John Oldfield, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull.

  1. Confinement: Victims may seem under the control of or being influenced by someone else, they may rarely interact with others. They may also appear unfamiliar with their surroundings, neighbourhood, workplace, and are likely not allowed to travel on their own.
  2. Living conditions: Victims work and home address may be the same address, and they may be living in unhygienic, cramped or overcrowded accommodation.
  3. Physical and psychological signs: Victims may show signs of physical or psychological abuse such as appearing detached, or looking dishevelled and malnourished.
  4. Lack of identification: Victims may have few personal possessions, no identification documents, and wear unsuitable/similar clothing day in day out.
  5. Little freedom of movement: Victims have limited opportunity to move freely and have had their travel documents such as their passport taken off them.
  6. Unusual travel times: It is likely victims are transported at unusual times when going to work or moving accommodation, either very early or late at night.
  7. Scared and reluctant to seek help: Victims may have a loss of trust and fear law enforcers due to being scared of deportation or the risk of harm being inflicted to them or their family. Victims may appear scared and avoid eye contact or talking to strangers.


If you think someone is in immediate danger from modern slavery please call the police on 999.

*All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1,672 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 29th - 30th September 2016.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

** UK Modern Slavery Act: Analysis of early company statements

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