Cost of Living Crisis Labour Exploitation

Labour Exploitation, Modern-Day Slavery and Economic Crisis

The debate on human trafficking, modern day slavery and criminal exploitation is often focused on international migration, organised crime groups and border controls. According to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, 80% of international migrants arriving in the UK this year have come from Albania ( Over 12,000 Albanian migrants have arrived in the UK so far in 2022, of which around 10,000 were men. Media reports suggest that much of this movement is driven by Albanian criminal gangs supplying labour for UK drug markets. The stance on immigration oscillates between a determination to restrict international migration and a recognition that tighter migration controls impact on staffing key sectors such as health care. As research conducted at Teesside University showed (Devanney et al, 2021), defining migration is itself a challenging prospect with implications for understanding data and service provision at a local and national level; are we talking about asylum seekers, refugees, or economic migrants? Who counts and how do we count them?

In terms of exploitation, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the tool by which suspected victims of modern-day slavery and criminal exploitation in the UK are entered into the system, their claims investigated, and appropriate support provided. As with all data, there are limitations – for example, it only records cases where suspected victims consent to the referral and does not count cases where someone refuses to provide consent – but it’s still a useful tool for exploring claims of modern-day slavery. The most recent NRM data, for Q3 (July-September) 2022, shows 4,586 referrals[1]. Broken down by nationality, Albanians[2] make up 1,310 with most of those referrals listed as ‘Labour’ or ‘Labour and Criminal’ exploitation. Around one-third of all NRM referrals come from Albania.


So, we know Albanians are arriving in large numbers and are also being referred into the NRM as suspected victims of slavery and exploitation. It’s a complex picture that the data can’t really illuminate. Are they economic migrants looking for better work opportunities than those available in Albania? Are they exploited by organised crime groups? Are they criminals who willingly participate in drug markets? The reality may well be a combination of all three and more research is needed on this. At a service level, first responders and multi-agency teams have to work extremely hard to determine the support and care needed for genuine victims while identifying those who seek to game the system, as well as interrupting those who seek to exploit others for profit. Cases are complex and can often take a long time to resolve.


However, while much of the noise focuses on the Albanian ‘invasion’ (to use the Home Secretary’s terminology), a closer look at the NRM data tells us that while Albanians are overwhelmingly the highest recorded group overall and the highest nationality for adults, UK adults represent the second highest total with over 200 referrals and UK children represent nearly half of the 1,984 NRM referrals for those potentially exploited as children. When we think of labour exploitation and human trafficking in the UK it conjures up images of Vietnamese cannabis farmers, Albanian drug dealers or Eritrean domestic workers. We imagine international crime gangs trafficking people to the UK for the purposes of labour, domestic servitude, drug markets or sexual exploitation, but this misses the fact that UK nationals represent a significant percentage of those referred as potential victims of exploitation. We know that refugees and asylum seekers represent a vulnerable population (Lloyd et al, 2022) and that economic migrants can find challenging circumstances awaiting them (Lloyd et al, 2021). However, the indigenous UK population also faces vulnerability to exploitation. In total, the most recent NRM data lists suspected victims from 204 different locations, with Albanian adults and UK children as the most likely to be exploited. The popular images may hold some truth but the reality of labour exploitation may be much closer to home and not at all who we think of when we consider the ‘likely’ victims.


Vulnerability in a time of crisis

What makes someone vulnerable to modern day slavery, criminal, labour or sexual exploitation? The victim profile changes depending on the form of exploitation as numbers of adults referred for labour exploitation is twice as high as the number of children referred in the same category. Women are more likely than men to be trafficked for sex or domestic servitude whereas men are more likely than women to be referred for labour exploitation. We should look at each form of exploitation in its own right and not conflate different crimes. However, we could make the case that vulnerability is linked to insecurity and that people are vulnerable to exploitation when their material circumstances create economically straitened conditions. While there may be other competing factors at play here, those forced into forms of labour exploitation are often victims of necessity.


At the time of writing, the UK inflation rate is over 10%. The Bank of England has raised interest rates to 3%. The cost of goods has gone up significantly and the cost of borrowing has also gone up. Prior to Covid-19, the UK labour market figures may have celebrated low unemployment rates but was characterised by the significant use of zero-hour, temporary and flexible contracts, gig economy labour, as well as low wages and an absence of protection (Lloyd, 2018). The gap between rich and poor was growing at a rate not seen since before the Wall Street Crash (Piketty, 2014; Dorling, 2019). Then the Covid-19 pandemic brought economic turmoil, required significant government intervention to prop up businesses and workers and, although the unemployment rate has returned to pre-Covid levels, the churn and uncertainty has taken its toll (Briggs et al, 2021). A report from the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre noted that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown policies increased vulnerability to modern slavery. Already vulnerable groups such as children, migrant and informal workers, women and girls increased, as did vulnerability across low- and middle- income countries (Hesketh and Johnstone, 2021). Workers have been buffeted by the pandemic and then emerged into a supply chain crisis, a cost of living crisis, and an energy crisis. It’s little wonder that writers such as Adam Tooze describe a time of ‘polycrisis’ (


Housing costs, everything from rent to heating, have gone up. Food prices are higher than they were six months ago. Wages are not keeping up with inflation. The government indicates that we may be heading for Austerity 2.0. Institutions from the NHS to the school system to the Criminal Justice System are under growing pressure and increasingly demonstrate an inability to meet demand, representing what Wolfgang Streeck (2016) referred to as ‘under-institutionalisation’, the hollowing out of the institutions we once took for granted. In an economy already characterised by inequality and wealth disparities, these developments represent a clear and present danger to individuals, families and communities across the UK. French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that our ‘age of abundance’ was over. In this climate, economic crises can and will become personal crises where rent increases, job losses or cuts in hours increase vulnerability and, subsequently, risk of criminal exploitation.


Of course, this will be geographically mediated. Trafficking and exploitation research already shows spatial differences in terms of type of work available locally, the concentration of diaspora communities and awareness of enforcement activity were all factors (Cockbain and Bowers, 2019). Seasonal patterns of different industries such as agriculture/food processing added a temporal element to where victims presented, although this isn’t necessarily where they were exploited. Some families, some parts of the UK, will be more resistant to these economic shocks and can weather the storm. Some communities, particularly those in areas of ‘permanent recession’ (Hall et al, 2008) for whom austerity and the economic shocks of Covid-19 represented ‘business as usual’ and the continuation of long-standing economic hardship, will see vulnerability increase. Into these spaces of insecurity and uncertainty, criminal markets will flood. The insecure, precarious and low-paid end of the formal labour market increasingly overlaps with the informal economy and the illegal economy. Is it possible to map those vulnerabilities and risks and identify communities or demographics in danger of exploitation?


In the popular imagination, labour exploitation and trafficking refers to a distant and often migrant ‘other’, people beyond our day-to-day experience, working in cannabis farms or out of sight in kitchen restaurants and warehouses. There is some truth to these images but the reality is also much closer to home. As the UK enters another recession, one predicted to last longer than any previous recession, those at risk of labour and criminal exploitation, both newly arrived and indigenous, may see those risks increase significantly.



Briggs, D., Telford, L., Lloyd, A., Ellis, A. and Kotzé, J. (2021) Lockdown: Social Harm in the Covid-19 Era. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cockbain, E. and Bowers, K. (2019) Human trafficking for sex, labour and domestic servitude: How do key trafficking types compare and what are their predictors? Crime, Law and Social Change. 72. 9-34.

Devanney, C., Lloyd, A., Wattis, L., and Bell, V. (2021) ’We’re still quite patchy about what we know’: International migration and the challenges of definition, categorisation and measurement on local service provision. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 47(15) 3583-3599.

Dorling, D. (2019) Inequality and the 1%. London: Verso.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture. Oxford: Willan.

Hesketh, O. and Johnstone, O. (2021) Policy Brief: Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery. Modern Slavery PEC Policy Brief 2021-4. Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre.

Lloyd, A. (2018) The Harms of Work: An Ultra-Realist Account of the Service Economy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lloyd, A., Devanney, C., Wattis, L. and Bell, V. (2021) ‘Just tensions left, right and centre’: Assessing the social impact of international migration on deindustrialised locale. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 44(15) 2794-2815.

Lloyd, A., Wattis, L., Devanney, C. and Bell, V. (2022) Refugee and asylum seeker communities and access to mental health support: A local case study. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.

Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the 21st Century. London: Belknap.

Streeck, W. (2016) How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.



[2] Including ‘Albanian’, ‘Albanian German’, ‘Albanian Greek’, ‘Albanian Italian’, ‘Albanian Kosovan’, ‘Albanian Lithuanian’, ‘Albanian UK’ and ‘Albanian Unknown’

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