Anti-Slavery day: “Trafficking is happening right now on our doorstep”

Trafficked men and women are hidden in plain sight in our communities, warns a Sheffield-founded charity which works with survivors across the UK.

Speaking out on the eve of National Anti-Slavery Day (October 18), City Hearts CEO Ed Newton said: “Local people should not imagine trafficking only exists in major cities like London. It is happening right now, on our doorsteps, in Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster.” According to City Hearts, latest statistics indicate there are as many as 136,000 modern-day slaves in the UK.

Victims found in this region – by police and via calls to the National Modern Slavery Helpline – had been forced to work in car washes, nail bars, takeaways, massage parlours and in warehouses, factories and construction sites.

Said Ed Newton: “People are trafficked into sectors which rely on casual labour. You might see them every day, working in roles that make your life easier, and not realise their plight. They are visible, yet invisible. “The food you eat could have been picked or cooked by slave labour. The clothes you wear could have been made or packed by trafficked people. Be vigilant, be brave and report anyone you think could be in danger.” Founded in Sheffield 14 years ago, City Hearts aims to restore the lives of people rescued from trafficking and modern slavery.

Nationally recognised for its work with over 2,000 survivors in the last five years, the organisation has grown dramatically to cope with the explosion in trafficking – in 2018 6,993 were referred into the National Referral Mechanism, a 36 per cent increase from 2017.

The charity began with a handful of staff in 2005 and now has a team of 175 across the North of England. It has a number of safe houses, a number of them cited in locations across South Yorkshire, where victims are brought from all over the UK. It also supports clients in outreach.

But this is only the beginning.Many survivors are so emotionally-scarred they end up with dependency problems or life-controlling issues such as depression. The charity’s specialist teams begin a long process of restoring health and confidence, eventually enabling survivors to live independently again and integrate into society. Peter is one of the people helped by the charity. He moved from Romania to the UK in 2014, hoping to find a better life for himself and a job that would allow him to support his mother back home. He stayed with his sister while he looked for work, then moved to Scotland to work in an Indian restaurant.

But a friend from home who had also moved to the UK called one day to tell Peter about a job opportunity at a car wash in London, which would be better paid and provide accommodation. Peter accepted the job straight away and moved to London. However, it was not what he had expected. He lived in a tiny house with at least four other men, sometimes more, sharing a cramped room with another man. After working his first week, Peter asked when he would be paid, to which his boss responded: “Your first week’s pay is your deposit to work here. You’ll get paid next week.” The next week he was still wasn’t paid, and it became clear he wasn’t going to be.

Peter was forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. He was physically drained and wanted to leave.One night, the men who ran the car wash told him he would have to open fraudulent bank accounts for money laundering purposes. He refused but his boss threatened him repeatedly, saying: “I can find and hurt your family. You work for us now; you belong to us.” Peter’s boss produced fake IDs, but Peter did what he could to delay as he was scared. After delaying for as long as he could, Peter knew he had no choice but to use the fake IDs.He hoped the police would notice the counterfeits so he could tell them his situation and get help, but the fraudulent documents were too realistic.

“One night, when the bosses were drinking and taking drugs, I decided it was my chance to get away. I grabbed some of the fake IDs in the house and ran to the nearest police station.

“I was really scared they would come after me, and feared the police wouldn’t believe me.”

The police believed Peter and referred him into the National Referral Mechanism, a framework for identifying victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive the appropriate protection and support. He moved to one of City Hearts’ safehouses, where he received support and counselling. 

“City Hearts helped me so much by getting me identification, helping me to find accommodation and finding English classes for me, which has made me feel much more confident.

“Now, I feel happy and safe. My life has changed completely.”

For information on how to Spot the Signs, visit

Words by Jo Davison from the Sheffield Telegraph