The British government is proposing tough new penalties on both human traffickers and companies who employ trafficked persons for forced labour, in the hope of curbing a problem that's increasingly landing on its shores.
Many countries, including Canada, have seen a rise in cases of forced labour, with victims largely being coerced from developing countries with the promise of a better life.
In Canada's case, the problem was widely exposed in 2010 when the Domotor-Kolompar, an organized crime family from Hungary, was found to have successfully lured up to 19 Hungarian men to Canada to work for essentially slave wages.
The men had been held hostage for over two years in basements in suburban neighbourhoods in Hamilton, Ont., and were abused, forced to work and commit fraud, until one man finally escaped.
In Britain, the government's new "Modern Slavery Bill," tabled in the House of Lords last week, introduces tougher and far-reaching legislation to prosecute traffickers as well as any business who might be involved, even unknowingly, and to aid victims in several ways.
One of the clauses being considered would allow victims to sue their traffickers for damages in civil court.
In September, Britain's National Crime Agency reported that 2,744 people, including 605 children, had been trafficked in the U.K. in 2013, a rise of 22 per cent from the previous year.
What's more, as awareness around this issue grows many governments are now recognizing that human trafficking often goes beyond the sex trade.
Adults and children are essentially being trafficked and used for forced labour, domestic servitude and forced criminality in a number of different ways.
British authorities have evidence of victims who have been shackled in regular suburban homes, forced to live off food scraps and threatened with violence, not unlike the high-profile Canadian case involving Hungarians.
"From the data that we've been exposed to, the majority of trafficking is not related to sexual exploitation, it is actually related to providing cheap or free labour," Andrew Boff, chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation in the U.K., said.
"It has looked very much like old-time slavery where victims have literally been shackled to radiators to prevent them from escaping."
Britain's hard line
The so-called Modern Slavery Bill, which the government hopes to pass before the general election set for May 7, introduces much tougher penalties for traffickers, such as increasing the maximum sentence to life in prison and restricting the movements of those convicted of lesser offences.
The proposed law would also strengthen law enforcement at sea, create the position of an independent anti-slavery commissioner and provides for compensation payments to victims from their traffickers.
One significant element directly targets the growing rate of forced and slave labour by holding regular companies accountable for whom they employ.
Failure to meet the proposed standards could result in the worldwide exposure of a company's connection to this modern form of human slavery.
The bill's proponents believe this could have a powerful impact on the rate of human trafficking, not just in the U.K. but globally.
"This is certainly a step in the right direction," says Parosha Chandran, a human rights barrister and UN expert on trafficking.
Home Secretary Theresa May had been reluctant to include such an amendment, but later changed her mind, Chandran said.
"She realized it is an integral and vital step in the battle against human trafficking to require companies to be held accountable for their supply chains."
More male victims
Chandran had been initially critical of the bill for its failure to address the needs of victims.
But she now believes that new amendments being considered will address many of those issues. One in particular is an amendment that would allow victims to sue their traffickers for such things as psychological harm.
"This would have a massive deterrent effect, and will enable the profits of traffickers to be substantially reduced," she said.
Other experts believe the proposed bill, along with large-scale awareness campaigns, has already started to make an impact.
"We have seen over a 100 per cent increase in victim referrals since 2011, and I think part of that is because of the increased awareness of the problem," says Anne Read, who directs the Salvation Army's human trafficking division. The Salvation Army currently operates 27 safe houses for trafficked victims across England and Wales.
Chandran had initially suspected that most of the safe houses would be used by female victims of sex trafficking.
But now "we're also seeing a large number of male victims who have been involved in different types of exploitation, including forced criminality and domestic servitude," she said.
Canada continues to have similar problems with human trafficking and forced labour.
This Domotor-Kolompar case prompted the government to launched the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.
That plan includes a special task force, led by Public Safety Canada, to better identify victims and coordinate the legal response to traffickers.
But the Canadian approach doesn't have quite the same force-of-law response that Britain's modern slavery bill would, particularly in that the U.K. law is expected to affect corporate supply chains.
The RCMP would not comment if human trafficking is growing, but its data suggests there is at least a 200 per cent rise in this type of case in the last 10 years.
Since 2004 there have been 217 specific human trafficking cases — nearly half of which have occurred since 2013.
The RCMP data also suggests that international cases of human trafficking were primarily for forced labour.