Modern Slavery in the United Kingdom: is There a Distinctly Rural Dimension?

By Gary Craig - 03 September 2020
Modern Slavery in the United Kingdom: is There a Distinctly Rural Dimension?

Gary Craig argues that there may be a specifically rural dimension needed in responses to modern slavery in the United Kingdom.

This is part of a forthcoming Global Policy e-book on modern slavery. Contributions from leading experts highlighting practical and theoretical issues surrounding the persistence of slavery, human trafficking and forced labour will be serialised here over the coming months.

Modern slavery in the UK was originally understood as an urban phenomenon. This article suggests that there may be distinctive features of modern slavery in rural areas and that this dimension requires further research and some distinct responses.

The issue of modern slavery emerged into political and policy discussion in the UK early in the 2000s, At the time, however, it was not understood to be a wide-ranging issue incorporating many different forms of enslavement; debate was concerned (informed by limited research) to the phenomenon of human trafficking of women (and some girls – under 18) into the UK for sexual purposes. The issue was poorly understood and only superficially investigated. Concern in policy circles appeared as much to be about the exploitation of ‘clients’ as about the women who had been coerced into offering sexual services: thus, as one British newspaper put it, these women were ‘a bunch of Eastern European hookers wanting to make money off our men’ (personal communication to author, Senior Police Officer, November 30 2017). Other commentators suggested that numbers of those trafficked had been exaggerated. Because of the limited research available, these numbers were largely based on guesswork and represented as orders of magnitude. Discussion was also muddied by debates about the nature of sex work with contestation over what forms of sex work and/or exploitation were to be viewed as trafficking or slavery, or labelled as a form of prostitution.  A lack of interest within the UK government was evidenced by the fact it did not endorse the European Union’s major 2000 policy statement on trafficking, the Palermo Protocol, till 2006. The key issue in the context of this article was, however, that trafficking of women was largely seen as an urban phenomenon.

This narrow focus began to be challenged from 2004 when 23 young Chinese men, smuggled into the UK, were drowned in Morecambe Bay, a largely rural area, whilst picking cockles for a criminal gang. In the wake of this tragedy, the government established an arms-length agency, the Gangmasters Licencing Authority, to licence the operations of companies hiring workers in three sectors, all predominantly rural in their orientation (covering agriculture, horticulture and forestry, meat packing and processing, and fishing-related sectors) . Shortly afterwards, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a UK grant-making charitable trust, alerted to the issue, funded a scoping exercise into the nature of slavery in the UK. Drawing on the limited research in the area, including a considerable amount of ‘grey’ literature, this report, adding to the shock of Morecambe Bay,  was significant in widening understandings about the nature of modern slavery in the UK.

The report’s authors urged the Foundation to develop a research programme on the issue of labour exploitation. Many of the reports emerging from the programme took this issue as their focus, with fieldwork largely being carried out in rural agricultural and related industries and locations. Major insights from the programme were (i) that a considerable amount of labour exploitation, in conditions which equated to modern slavery, was taking place in the UK and particularly in rural (and thus relatively hidden) locations; (ii) that those in this form of slavery were not, as common understandings then had it, solely migrant workers from East and Central Europe, but included many White British nationals; and (iii) that policy and practice was ill-equipped, despite the creation of the GLA, to deal with it because of the continuing understanding of slavery amongst most regulatory and policing bodies as being mainly about human trafficking. The programme also highlighted the issue of supply chains whereby much of the food produce available in shops across the UK had its origins in rural areas (including in the UK) and reached those shops through complex supply chains in which forms of severe labour exploitation might be present.

The Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Trafficking, coming into force in 2008, provided further impetus for the UK government to begin to monitor the nature of trafficking (and, increasingly, other forms of modern slavery). It was prompted to establish the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the means by which alleged victims of (initially) human trafficking, and later, all forms of modern slavery (covering human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced labour) could be identified and provided with support to enable them to escape from exploitation. It also gave the government the means to monitor and record the numbers passing through the NRM.

Initially, those recorded as being the victims of human trafficking dominated the statistics but within a few years, the numbers of those recorded as being subject to labour exploitation outnumbered those recorded as being the victims of trafficking, a trend also apparent in data collected in other EU countries. (ECPAT 2012). The public policy and research nomenclature moved to talking of modern slavery rather than trafficking, reflected in, for example, both the change of name of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking, to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Day Slavery, and the passage of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, which referred to a variety  forms of modern slavery. The Home Office later identified, in a position paper, 17 different forms that modern slavery might take in the UK.

By 2019, more than 10,000 people annually had been referred into the NRM, almost half of them involving labour exploitation (compared with roughly one third for sexual exploitation); this compares with an overall total of (mainly trafficking cases) of just over 2300 in 2014. By no means all of the labour exploitation cases were identified in rural locations, of course, but a significant proportion would have been.

This emerging pattern – of modern slavery victims being numerically dominated by those in labour exploitation- was confirmed by the records of advice centres working in predominantly rural locations such as the Rosmini Project, based in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire but serving a very wide rural area where food production, processing and packing featured as significant economic activities. Ironically, this project was established to support foreign migrants coming for employment in the area but the project soon found that a significant proportion of those attending local advice sessions exhibited many of the indicators of modern slavery. Rosmini consequently identified a number of issues needing to be addressed when attempting to deal with modern slavery in rural areas. These were as follows:

  • As noted above, most anti-slavery work in the UK tended to concentrate more on issues of human trafficking than other forms of slavery and the detail of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act reinforced this narrow perspective, despite an apparently wider focus. The major focus of modern slavery within rural areas tended, however, as noted above, to be labour exploitation, associated with some of the original industrial sectors in which modern slavery had first generated a political and policy response: namely agriculture, forestry, food production and processing and horticulture. In recent months, the issue of ‘county lines’ (see below), in which slavery issues are effectively ‘fed’ from urban into rural areas, has begun to be significant. These both required specific and new responses from investigative and regulatory bodies.
  • Distances between rural towns and centres of population, and the sparseness of those populations meant that the normal kinds of everyday observation and monitoring which might be feasible in urban areas, are more difficult and more costly. It is relatively easy for an illegal gangmaster to hide workers in a caravan two miles down a rough country track than it is for a trafficker to ‘hide’ exploited women in an urban street.
  • Rurality also impacts on organised responses to slavery, including the ability to create sustainable partnerships. In some rural areas, bringing organisations together physically for meetings may mean 80-mile round trips for some partners with the cost in money and time that that implies.
  • Hate crime data over the past years, including since the 2016 Referendum, suggested that rates of hate crime have grown more substantially in relative terms in rural areas than in urban areas. Victims of rural hate crime, however, find it more difficult to report incidents both because of the distances to get to a reporting centre and because of the impacts of isolation from co-ethnic groups and absence of support groups, which makes victims more vulnerable. In this context, given the stresses placed on rural areas (which might hitherto have had small minority populations) by unplanned large-scale in-migration and the hostile misrepresentation by much of the mainstream media, public attitudes to the vulnerability of minorities are likely to be mixed at least and downright hostile at worst, making victims of modern slavery less likely to be identified and supported than they might be in more urban settings, and certainly less likely to seek help.
  • It is significantly more difficult, even where agencies having a rural focus in part (such as the GLA, now GlAA, some police forces and local authorities for example) have the political will (which was not always the case) for them to work together in effective partnership. This requires greater levels of investment in time and other resources, and agencies have to find creative and manageable ways to build strong partnerships which address these kinds of issue. In rural areas, there are significantly fewer other resources – NGOs, legal advocates, victim support agencies, activists – than in urban areas, placing greater strains on those which are  active in the area.

These, and other dimensions of rurality, suggest that those national fora both within and outside government working on issues of modern slavery should always have a strong element of their working agenda which explicitly raises issues of prime concern to rural areas. It would also be useful if those agencies training people to work with the public were able to identify important differences between rural and urban contexts.

One way in which the incidence of modern slavery in rural areas – quite apart from a heavy focus on labour exploitation - might be explored, is by analysing the returns relating to each of the English 43 police forces. In the first few years of organised anti-modern slavery work it was clear that the level of activity in police forces serving predominantly rural areas was notably low, even allowing for their smaller populations. Analysing NRM statistics in terms of the number of victims referred through police channels does have its limitations in that many police forces cover both rural and urban areas. For example, North Yorkshire Police Force covers both York – a highly urbanised core – and the largely rural and remote area of North Yorkshire. Given that the population of North Yorkshire is three times that of York, it seems reasonable however to allocate North Yorkshire police force to a rural police force category and the same logic could be applied to a number of other police forces. Using this rough and ready categorisation, an analysis of NRM data (drawing on the final 2018 outturn)(1), shows the pattern illustrated in the Table below, based on subgroups of predominantly urban and predominantly rural police force areas.

In 2018, there were 6993 referrals to the NRM, of which 39% were female, and 45% referred for exploitation as minors i.e. under 18. The total referred through police forces was 1908 (27% of the total), an average across all police forces of 3.1 cases per 100,000 population across the whole of the UK (although considerably lower in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – for example, 1.2 potential victims per 100,000 population were referred via Police Scotland, the sole police force in that country).

Table 1: Numbers of NRM referrals by English police forces, 2018


Despite considerable variation within each of these two groupings, this shows a fairly clear overall pattern whereby the numbers of referrals pro rata in predominantly urban police force areas is about one-third higher than those in predominantly rural police force areas (and this discrepancy may be greater bearing in mind all ‘rural’ areas contain substantial urban populations, as exemplified by the case of North Yorkshire earlier. A similar pattern may also obtain in terms of referrals by local authority safeguarding operations.

There are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy: one may be that there are  actually equivalent numbers of victims in rural areas but that it is difficult to identify them because of the scattered sources of help, making either self-referral or identification by local agencies less easy (with many rural areas not having the network of relevant NGOs, for example, that urban areas have)(2); another may be that the opportunities for exploitation are either relatively fewer or are more easily hidden from view; or an explanation may lie with the police force itself, with rural police forces perhaps being less well-trained or regard slavery, because of the apparently lower numbers, as less of a priority (a rather circular and self-defeating argument). Agencies responsible for monitoring and responding to cases of modern slavery such as the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) will also struggle to respond to the need for investigations in  rural areas since they are fundamentally not resourced adequately to handle the potential volume of work (having very few staff overall), and are intelligence driven i.e. responding to others’ identifications rather than being able to proactively explore likely locations. Whatever the explanation, there seem to be grounds for further investigation of this issue, This will require further dedicated resources for working in rural areas.

Covid-19, together with the government’s growing hostility to migrants, had already generated regional shortages of labour in the food growing and packing sector by mid-2020 with many migrant workers staying away: the government’s response has been to introduce a number of short-term responses to the crisis.(3) However, even if Covid is brought under control, the new restrictions on immigration being introduced by government as part of its so-called ‘hostile’ environment are likely to exacerbate these labour shortages. One outcome from Brexit, with the likely consequent loss of legal protections for workers and push-back on unskilled workers coming to the UK for just this sort of work is that more workers may be driven to work ‘underground’, i.e. illegally and in hidden locations, thus making them more vulnerable to exploitation in different ways. This is a further argument for scrutiny of rural areas to be enhanced.

One project which has taken rurality as one of its defining features is the Clewer Initiative, a national project funded through the Church of England. Its stance is that modern slavery is everywhere and that, particularly in small rural locations, the Church has the opportunity and responsibility to take the lead in identifying and addressing it. The Church (and its parallels in other constituent countries of the UK) is almost unique within the UK as having a network of local  ‘branches’ (i.e. churches with associated groups and workers) in virtually every populated settlement in the country, however small. This places it in an ideal position both to help identify victims through awareness campaigns, and to press the case for a strong rural focus for other agencies working in the field. At the time of writing, Clewer had already published several guides for local parishes (e.g. an app for examining working conditions in farm work) and run a number of seminars and events bringing together key actors including the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

The NFU, for its part, has outlined how it is increasing its levels of monitoring and surveillance in registered workplaces, working with major supermarkets to maintain surveillance over supply chains and, drawing on advice from the GLAA, to ensure workplaces are properly licenced and to question workers about their terms and conditions. This will help establish whether illegal gangmasters have been active in recruitment and placing of workers as well as providing a series of indicators (such as high turnover of staff, low-skilled work, long supply chains and informal subcontracting) which might suggest modern slavery is present within any particular enterprise. It is to be hoped that further insights into identifying and responding to modern slavery in rural areas, will emerge from this Initiative, working in partnership with local and national agencies.

The final complicating factor in looking at a rural focus for future work on modern slavery is the phenomenon of county lines. This began to emerge in 2017 and involves organised criminal gangs operating in cities who then connect with rural areas and coerce vulnerable young people to act as ‘mules’, running drugs from cities to rural areas where they are distributed either by gang members or others who have been co-opted into the process. Sometimes the gang literally takes over houses of vulnerable local people (a process known as ‘cuckooing’) and use them as their base for local activities. There are already indications that no settlement, however small or rural, is protected from this phenomenon. Recent data reflects the growth of this activity, with referrals for exploited children into the NRM or into child safeguarding procedures, rising rapidly and obscuring other more familiar forms of modern slavery in rural areas.  This has attracted a lot of organisational resources in some areas, and considerable media attention. Whilst it is clearly important to identify whether or not this process is taking place locally and respond to it (usually in partnership with their urban counterparts), police forces, with their own difficulties of lack of resources and the operational problems inherent in rural and remote areas, need also to be able to maintain a strong focus on the more familiar forms of modern slavery in rural areas which, in some such areas, is only just beginning to get attention.

This preliminary review of data and arguments suggests, at the very least, that organisations tasked with responding to modern slavery need to think carefully about the rural dimension to their work. Further analysis will be needed to understand why there appears to be a lower level of activity in rural areas (although this may be masked soon by the advent of county lines) and training and procedures within police forces and their partners, need specifically to identify the issues which working in rural areas throws up, ensuring that flexible responses are available to stay ahead of organised criminal gangs. These have shown themselves to be highly adaptable and versatile in pursuing their activities.



Gary Craig is Professor of Social Justice and Visiting Professor at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is co-convenor of the Modern Slavery Research Consortium. See

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev from Pexels



  1. I am using the year end data for 2018: in 2019, the Home Office took over control of the production of NRM statistics using a different format to that which had been used and published in the previous five years. In addition, the phenomenon of county lines began to emerge strongly in 2019 which may have distorted or somewhat obscured this pattern.
  2. It is striking that a number of major cases of slavery identified in rural areas have been in plain sight, such as the vegetable growing and packing farm in Herefordshire where it took an outbreak of the corona virus amongst the workforce to reveal the appalling working conditions in which migrants were being held. Comments made by key agencies involved in this case make it clear that this is not an isolated incident and the research by Scott et al. referred to above identified this sector as prone to modern slavery.
  3. See for example ‘Seasonal Labour and the UK’s Food Supply Chain., DEFRA Press office release, May 19 2020.



ECPAT (2012) Parliamentarians against human trafficking, First Annual Report, London: ECPAT.


Disqus comments