Kevin Hyland: As a nurse, you are on the front line fighting modern slavery

The independent anti-slavery commissioner pledges his support to healthcare professionals who have a unique role to play in tackling this brutal trade in human life.

The independent anti-slavery commissioner pledges his support to healthcare professionals who have a unique role to play in tackling this brutal trade in human life

Picture: iStock

If someone walks into your surgery, ward or unit with indicators of modern slavery, would you know how to respond?

If your answer is yes, then efforts in the anti-slavery sector are proving successful.

If your answer is no, then I want to better support you as you fulfil your role on the front line in the fight against modern slavery.

As a health professional, you are in a prime position to end a case of exploitation and prevent further harm. As your independent anti-slavery commissioner, it is my job to ensure this takes place.

Modern slavery is a serious crime that impacts more than 40 million people around the world and thousands in the UK. The Home Office estimates there to be 13,000 people enslaved across the country, but I believe this estimate far too modest, with the true number in the tens of thousands.


In the UK, modern slavery is the man who works 15-hour shifts, seven days a week at a car wash where he lives on site; it is the British schoolgirl who has been groomed to provide sexual services to ten clients a day; it is the factory worker who is deprived wages and lives in a nearby property in a cramped room with five co-workers; it is the nail technician who works excessively long hours and is not free to leave the premises; it is the domestic slave who can only eat leftovers and sleeps in a storage cupboard; it is the construction worker who is not given protective clothing and remains in debt bondage to their employer.

The various forms of exploitation in the UK lead to various health concerns, from sexually transmitted diseases and physical injuries, to mental health problems and symptoms of trauma. Victims’ needs are often complex.

Individuals may have health problems that are minor or severe, but few are unscathed. And so, modern slavery is not just a crime of concern for police; it is not just a social issue for government; it is a health problem for all health professionals.

Important work is already under way by NHS England and the Royal College of Nursing – awareness raising guidance for staff has been rolled out: a video has been created to help staff spot the signs of slavery; pocket guides have been given to nurses; a training programme has been developed for all staff and safeguarding toolkits have been refreshed to include reference to modern slavery.


In addition, I am currently working with NHS England’s head of safeguarding to create a network of modern slavery leads – people who can act as focal points for staff and practitioners, and a powerful tool in the anti-slavery fight.

Still, our work here is not done. Modern slavery is a serious crime demanding a serious response. It is a shame on society, something for us all to take responsibility for.

Health practitioners are in a unique position to respond to cases of slavery and even prevent further harm, and on this International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (2 December), I want to encourage you all to join the fight as together we rid the UK of this brutal trade in human life.

Picture: Caring for Trafficked Persons: Guidance to Healthcare Providers; IOM; 2009

Kevin Hyland is the independent anti-slavery commissioner

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