Wages of Sin: Labour Exploitation in Leicestershire

The increase in the minimum wage this month will, we pray, be welcome relief for some of the millions of people in the UK struggling to stay afloat amidst rising inflation. Yet, this safety net won’t catch everyone – many workers in the gig economy, for example, as well as victims of forced labour - and we, as Christians, should not turn a blind to eye to that injustice.

“The labourer deserves his wages”, Jesus told his disciples (Luke 10:7) – a principle which Paul echoed in his letter to Timothy (1 Tim 5:18). The Deuteronomic Code was even more specific: Israelite employers should give labourers their wages “on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin” (Deut 24:15). The fair and just treatment of workers is a key principle within the Torah and into the New Testament. Yet, even today, even in Leicestershire, labour exploitation is all around us.

Nearly 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office in 2021, though the actual number of individuals trapped in labour, criminal or sexual exploitation is likely to be far higher. Labour exploitation – the most common reason for adults to be referred as potential victims of modern slavery last year – can take many forms, which aren’t always obvious. For example, workers can find themselves in debt bondage to recruitment agencies, made to work in unsafe conditions, for long hours and little pay, misled about their rights, or subjected to threats and abuse.

It can also happen in virtually any workplace: from care to construction, farms to factories, logistics to leisure. And most importantly, it can happen in our Diocese. In 2020, Leicestershire Police received over 220 reports of modern slavery and human trafficking. Labour Behind the Label reported in the same year that some workers at Leicester’s garment factories earned just £2.50 an hour producing clothes for Boohoo, while the retailer’s CEO received a £1 million bonus.

As hidden as modern slavery can be, churches are often well-placed to spot it. The investigation which led to the break-up of the largest trafficking ring in UK history began when volunteers at a church suspected that some of the visitors to the soup kitchen were being exploited. Research with survivors of modern slavery found that none would go to the council for help, only 4 out of 12 would go to the police but all of them would go to a church, mosque or other place of worship.

So, although, we might find it awkward to talk about salaries and working conditions, it is worth paying attention in pastoral conversations to any indications of exploitation or harassment at work - not just with those in our churches, but also those we encounter in our communities. The resources below can help equip you and others within your church to identify, report and prevent modern slavery. And even if you do not encounter someone who has been trafficked or held against their will, labour exploitation sits on a continuum and it is up to all of us to use our power as citizens and consumers to stand up for fair, just, and dignified working conditions.

First published on: 12th April 2023
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