Robert Buckland has urged the wider community to ‘call out’ modern day slavery so authorities can act, claiming it is ‘all around us’.
The Justice Secretary said workers were being exploited in towns, cities and in rural areas across Britain and that the abuse ‘takes many forms’.
It comes as reports emerge that as many as 10,000 people could be working in slave-like conditions in textile factories in Leicester. The city has been under scrutiny after a Sunday Times investigation claimed workers were making clothes destined for fashion giant Bohoo for as little as £3.50 an hour.
The company has said it will investigate the alleged illegal practices.
Mr Buckland told Sky News: ‘A light has now been shone on an appalling litany of abuse and I’m glad to hear that the National Crime Agency (NCA) is now conducting an investigation, its got a lot of power to bring in various agencies to start the work of an investigation into this.
‘Modern-day slavery is all around us, its in every town and city in Britain and indeed in our rural areas as well, it takes many forms.
‘This type of exploitation, people being paid well below under the minimum wage, having to work in unacceptable conditions, that sort of abuse has to be stamped out, it has to be examined, we have to follow the evidence and prosecute wherever possible.’
When asked by Kay Burley why more had not been done to ‘stamp out’ modern day slavery in the past 10 years, Mr Buckland said the authorities response to it had improved but said it was also up to communities to report the crime.
‘What has happened with modern slavery is that we’ve legislated on it, we’ve improved the response of the agencies and the authorities to it, but now it’s up to all of us in our communities to identify it, call it out and to do everything we can to stamp it out’ he said.
‘This is not a job that’s going to take weeks, it’s going to take a long time but I welcome the investigation.’
When pressed again on why more had not been done already, the Justice Secretary said what happened in Leicester has helped shine ‘an even more intense light on this abuse’ to allow the authorities to take ‘appropriate action’.
He added: ‘I don’t think anybody can pretend that these issues can be solved straight away, we need people to talk about it, there’s been a conspiracy of silence about this, it is up to people to come forward and present the evidence in order to bring these cases.’
Also appearing on Sky News this morning, Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen agreed a ‘conspiracy of silence’ has allowed factories in the city to continue to exploit workers over many years. He said there had been a ‘systematic failure’ of protections that should prevent slavery from happening .
‘I’ve estimated it’s around 10,000 individuals who are effectively in modern slavery providing garments for internet retailers’ he said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel is understood to be considering introducing new laws to tackle modern slavery following the allegations of mistreatment among workers in the UK’s fast-fashion industry.
She reportedly believes the police and local councils are avoiding tackling illegal sweatshops over fears of being accused of racism. According to The Sunday Times, the home secretary claimed ‘cultural sensibilities’ are causing officials to turn a blind eye to illegal sweatshops.
Ms Patel is reportedly now considering a crackdown on current modern slavery legislation which has been deemed ‘not fit for purpose’.
Deputy mayor of Leicester Adam Clarke said local authorities have been aware of the exploitation of workers for a long time but said systems to crack down on it are too complex. He said modern slavery was a ‘systemic issue that is borne out of poor regulation, poor legislation and exploitation at every level.’
The National Crime Agency (NCA) is looking into the allegations of illegal sweatshops in Leicester.
Boohoo said it was ‘shocked an appalled’ by the accusations and appointed a top lawyer to look into conditions at the factory. It also pledged to spend £10 million tackling malpractice.
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