Britain’s Secret Slavery Business review – a superb study of terrifying exploitation


It’s the weekend! Who’s up for an hour-long pitiless examination of man’s apparently inexhaustible capacity for inhumanity to man? You all are? What luck that last night gave us (BBC2), an everyday tale of modern servitude.

There were the 30 people (“downtrodden, malnourished”, said one of the police officers involved), from various parts of eastern Europe rescued from a factory in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, that supplied beds to several big high-street retailers. They had been promised proper homes and jobs but found themselves working 15 hours a day, living 14 to a toilet and being paid £10 a week.

There was , autistic and vulnerable, who was kidnapped at 34 and forced to work unpaid on a farm for 13 years. The police were eventually tipped off and freed him. He was in such a bad way that his father didn’t recognise him. His captor was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. “I wish he had got the same as me,” said Simester, softly.

A photograph issued by West Yorkshire police of the interior of a house in Bradford where a number of Hungarians employed as a ‘slave workforce’ in a bed-making firm were housed. Photograph: West Yorkshire Police/PA

Other people, mostly migrants, are being exploited on fishing trawlers – 20-hour work days and unable to go ashore without the proper papers – and yet more are staffing our beauty salons, our car washes and our fast-food outlets, hidden by their “owners” in plain sight and invisibly handcuffed by lack of money and documentation, threats to their families and beatings after failed escape attempts. “You have family,” said one man. “So you sacrifice yourself.”

It was a superbly compressed piece of television, presented by Darragh MacIntyre, documenting the abuses, the investigations by a new specialist police unit, the progressive legislation (human traffickers can now receive life sentences) and all the ways it can be evaded by evildoers and stymied by the fear they instil in their captives. And the programme was clear on how we, as consumers, are complicit. “We support people in destitution,” said David Ford, an outreach worker with exploited migrants. “If you pay £5 for five people to clean your car for half an hour – how can they live on that?” The maths doesn’t work. And so the sum of human misery climbs.