UK anti-trafficking laws

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labour. It is a modern day form of slavery and ranks alongside the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world, behind the illegal drugs trade.

Previous legislation

Before the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA 2015) came into force on 31 July 2015, the UK’s anti-trafficking laws were a patchwork of different rules found in a number of different statutes. These included:

  • Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act – made the trafficking of people for reasons of prostitution illegal.
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003 (SOA 2003) – made trafficking for all forms of sexual exploitation illegal.
  • Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act – criminalised human trafficking for all purposes, including forced labour.
  • Coroners and Justice Act 2009 – made it illegal for an individual to force another into forced labour.

Modern Slavery Act 2015

MSA 2015 repeals and replaces the offences of human trafficking contained in the above statutes. The new offences include:

  • slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour (s 1);
  • human trafficking (s 2);
  • committing an offence with intent to commit a trafficking offence (s 4).

Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour

An offence is committed under s 1 if someone:

  • holds another person in slavery or servitude;
  • knows or ought to know that the person is so held;
  • requires another person to perform forced or compulsory labour;
  • knows or ought to know that the person is being required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

Indicators of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour include:

  • violence or threats of violence by the employer against the worker or their family;
  • threats to report the worker to the authorities (eg, because of the worker’s immigration status or previous convictions);
  • documents, such as a passport or other ID, being withheld;
  • constraint of movement;
  • debt bondage;
  • refusal to pay wages.

A person guilty of an offence under s 1 faces up to 12 months’ prison and/ or a fine on summary conviction; on conviction on indictment, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Human trafficking

Under s 2, an individual commits an offence if they arrange or facilitate the travel of another with a view to that person being exploited. It is irrelevant whether that person consents to the travel, or whether they are a child or an adult. A UK national commits an offence regardless of where the arranging or facilitating takes place, or where the travel takes place.

Travel is defined as:

  • arriving in, or entering, any country;
  • departing from any country; or
  • travelling within any country.

Under s 3 of MSA 2015, exploitation includes:

  • slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour;
  • sexual exploitation (which involves the commission of an offence under s 1(1)(a) of the Protection of Children’s Act 1978 (indecent photographs of children), or Pt 1 of SOA 2003 (eg, rape or sexual assault);
  • removal of organs where a person is encouraged required or expected to do anything which involves the commission of an offence under ss 32 or 33 of the Human Tissue Act 2004 (prohibition of commercial dealings in organs and restrictions on use of live donors);
  • securing services etc by force, threats or deception;
  • securing services etc from children and vulnerable persons (eg, physically or mentally ill or disabled).

Someone found guilty of human trafficking is liable on summary conviction to 12 months’ imprisonment and / or unlimited fine. On conviction on indictment, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Committing an offence with intent to commit a trafficking offence

Under s 4, a person commits an offence if they commit any offence with the intention of committing an offence under s 2 (including an offence committed by aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring an offence under that section).

On summary conviction, a defendant found guilty of this offence faces up to 12 months’ imprisonment and / or an unlimited fine. On conviction on indictment, the maximum sentence is 10 years’ imprisonment. However, where the offence involves false imprisonment or kidnapping, it is life imprisonment.

Other sentences available

As well as a fine and/ or imprisonment, someone found guilty of human trafficking or holding another person in slavery or servitude can face:

  • deportation;
  • compensation order;
  • confiscation of criminal assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002;
  • detention and forfeiture of a vehicle, ship or aircraft used or intended to be used in connection with the offence of human trafficking.

Conventions and protocols dealing with human trafficking

In May 2005, the Council of Europe formally adopted the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. The Convention provides for further legal protection and minimum standards of care for individuals who have been victims of human trafficking. The legal protection and minimum standards of care for victims includes:

  • A minimum recovery and reflection period.
  • Temporary residence permits for those who may be in danger if they return to their country of origin.
  • Temporary residence permits for children if it is in their best interests to remain in the UK.
  • Access to specialist support, emergency medical care, legal advice and the provision of safe housing.

The Convention was adopted by the UK in 2009. The UK Human Trafficking centre was also created to ensure the obligations under the Convention are adhered to.
The UK has also signed and ratified the United Nation’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children which supplements the United Nation Convention against Transnational Organised Crime 2000.