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With an estimated 13,000 people held in modern slavery in the UK today, Epigram spoke to Andrew Wallis OBE – CEO of Bristol charity Unseen, who are at the forefront of the fight back against this hidden crime.

You had a successful career in business – what motivated you to set up a charity?

My background includes business and working for the church, and through that I came across trafficking. We had been working with the social orphan problem in Ukraine and started asking about what happens to kids post-16 when they leave an orphanage.

Once you’re aware of it, you can’t stop seeing it

The response we got was either drugs, prostitution or trafficked – the traffickers turn up and the kids are never seen again. It became one of those things where once you’re aware of it, you can’t stop seeing it.

The pivotal stories for me talked about traffickers using regional airports – Bristol was named. I wrote to every member of the council, every MP and the chief constable saying: what can we do to help? That led to a meeting with a senior police officer, in a four hour off the record conversation – the takeaways were it wasn’t a political priority and therefore wasn’t a policing priority.

At the end of that conversation the officer asked me ‘What are you going to do about it?’ and I said ‘What’s needed?’ From his perspective it was safe house accommodation. I agreed on one condition – he agreed to be my first trustee, which he remains today, and Unseen developed from there.

You mentioned Bristol featuring in news reports – is Bristol a specifically concentrated area?

No more or no less than any other city or town. It has good transport links, a large population area, it happens. But you could say the same for anywhere – the interesting thing about modern slavery is that there isn’t a city, town or village that is exempt from it.

It’s much bigger than the government is willing to admit to

It can be in industrial units in the countryside as well as the city centre, from homeless people to car washes, to illegal brothels and nail bars. In the 10 years I’ve looked at it, it continues to adapt the entire time.

Are there any incidents you’ve witnessed or things that have stuck with you?

Primarily, that it is hidden in plain sight. It’s much bigger than the country or the government is willing to admit to.

In terms of what’s stuck with me, I think it’s the ability of someone to be controlled by another person, which is a difficult concept to grasp. I constantly get asked ‘why don’t they just walk away?’ It’s the understanding of the psychological controls.

I remember meeting a guy who was six foot four, built like a brickhouse, yet was controlled by a trafficker and was terrified. Even when he had been removed from exploitation and assured he wasn’t in trouble, his parting words to me were: ‘Are you sure that I’m safe?’ That’s what people don’t understand – the level of the invisible shackles people are held with.

What are the challenges you face in dealing with something so hidden?

The first is helping the public understand how they contribute to it – modern slavery is the illicit trade in human beings turned into commodities. That commodity is bought, sold and exploited and generates vast profits with horrendous human rights outcomes.

The other thing is the awkward question of what drives this industry. Fundamentally it’s society’s addiction to cheap – we want cheap goods, cheap services, cheap labour, cheap sex, cheap organs – once that’s driving your industry, it allows for illegal exploitation and profiteering.

You’ve had a lot of success – what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the fact that my colleagues on the frontline get someone in freefall, stop that freefall and give them safety, hope and choices for the future with a sense of being safe. They may walk with a limp for the rest of their lives, but if we can help them start walking again that’s great.

I don’t delude myself that we’ve arrived

Also, having chaired the report that was the instigation of the Modern Slavery Act, and the fact that in 2011 this wasn’t on the political agenda but now is a priority. It doesn’t mean job done, but you don’t often go from writing a report to major legislation in three or four years – that’s what I got the OBE for. I’m honoured to have got that recognition, but I don’t delude myself that we’ve arrived.

What is there to do long term?

The majority of people are held in forced labour – so the major change needs to be changing business. To get business on board you don’t talk to them about human rights.

We’ve been naming and shaming for 30 years and what’s it done?

We talk about the economics of doing the right thing, sustainable profitability and the impact of millennials who will say: ‘I don’t want to work for a business that’s enslaving people’ – language they understand. Businesses don’t want to be associated with slavery, and I think with those factors we could hit a cultural shift in how business is done.

I don’t believe in name and shame – when businesses find it, we should applaud them and make them tell us why it won’t happen again. We’ve been naming and shaming for 30 years and what’s it done?

Then along with that, learning lessons of history. What flipped the transatlantic slave trade was public revulsion – so how do we inspire the public to think: ‘no, we don’t want anything to do with this’?

You mention you’ve worked with the government, how has that been?

Nationally, we’re in a sweet spot at the moment because it’s top of the agenda. But politicians are politicians with one eye on elections… so it won’t always be a priority. I applaud the government for the Modern Slavery Act – it’s not perfect, but no legislation is.

Locally, I wish Marvin would take a more proactive lead as I think because of Bristol’s historic links to the transatlantic slave trade this is a perfect opportunity. Not in a handwringing, apologising for the past yet again way – I’m done with apologising, we’ve got a problem we have to deal with now.

I’m ambivalent over changing the name of Colston Hall and I’d rather that energy was dealing with the current issue. I see a city constantly tripping over our shoelaces, and it feels like a drag on the city going forward. Bristol isn’t forward thinking or adventurous enough when you look at its potential.

That said, we’ve set up the Anti-Slavery Partnership all over the South-West and the council won’t do business unless it’s in compliance with the transparency in supply chains act and reporting on

Finally, if you had a message for Bristol students, what would it be?

Wilberforce roughly said: Once you become aware of the issue, you can no longer say ‘I’m not aware’. You can choose to do nothing, or do something. Once you’re aware of modern slavery, what are you going to do about it?

We don’t all have to join a charity, but it should affect the choices you make – where you shop, where you eat, where you work, who you vote for and the questions you ask. Your generation have a huge opportunity to force change upwards.

You could provide the piece of information which sets someone free from slavery – which is a powerful thing.

If you see the signs of modern slavery, call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 or report on the website. Visit or follow @UnseenOrg and @mshelpline on Twitter to find out more.

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