This autumn, Bristol-based charity Unseen launched a hotline to deal with reports of modern slavery. Kathleen Steeden discovers how slavery still exists in the city, over 200 years since it was officially abolished.

Bristol is a city built on the profits of the transatlantic slave trade, but it’s not afraid to accept the part it played in this dark period of human history. Throughout the town there are museums and galleries dedicated to Bristol’s role as a slaving port. It is inarguably important that Bristol remembers its historical role in slavery, but this preoccupation with the past is in danger of obscuring the ugly fact that the slave trade is very much alive and thriving in the city today.

Bristol-based charity Unseen is working to combat this largely hidden issue in the city and beyond by directly supporting survivors, working with local agencies and influencing UK legislation and policy.

Modern day slavery

The human rights group, Walk Free Foundation, recently published the 2016 Global Slavery Index, which estimates that worldwide nearly 46 million people are subject to some form of slavery. This forced labour can take many guises, including trafficking, debt bondage, commercial sexual exploitation and child labour.

The Home Office estimates that there may be up to 13,000 people living as slaves in the UK. The charity Unseen stresses that this is happening to vulnerable people here, in our communities. The victims of slavery aren’t confined to foreign lands, they’re working in Bristol’s hand car washes, nail bars, takeaways, cannabis factories and brothels.

Addressing a need

Andrew Wallis, founder and CEO of Unseen, first became aware of modern slavery in 2007 when disturbing cases of human trafficking were uncovered while he was working with a church in the Ukraine. Once aware of the issue, he began to see evidence of slavery back in Britain too. Unable to ignore the reality of modern day slavery and driven by a desire to understand the scale and nature of the problem in the Bristol, Andrew arranged a meeting with a senior police officer who outlined the situation in the city. At that time he estimated that there were 65 to 75 residential properties in Bristol being used as illegal brothels.

“All the police could do when they turned these places over was arrest the victims on suspected immigration offences, knowing that they were victims, just to get them out of the situation. They would put them in a B&B or a hotel overnight. They would disappear, go straight back to the traffickers and move to another part of the country.”

Andrew had one question: ‘How can I help?’ The police officer told him that there was a desperate need for safe housing and, despite having no previous experience of providing this kind of service, Andrew worked with colleagues to establish the first 24/7 safe house in Bristol. Unseen was born.

Supporting survivors

Unseen established the Bristol Anti-Slavery Partnership, working together with Avon and Somerset Police, Bristol City Council and health and social care agencies in the region to identify and support victims. Today, a large part of Unseen’s work is in training law enforcement, health and social care workers, children’s and youth workers, and businesses to recognise the signs of slavery.

Although modern slavery affects the most vulnerable people in society, there is no typical profile of a victim. In the last eight years Unseen has grown its provision to include safe houses for men and women.

Dorina’s story

Dorina, not her real name, is a 24-year-old woman from Romania. Her mother left when she was a child and her father could not find work. At the age of 10 Dorina was forced to leave school to work, earning money through various jobs in the city and agricultural labour. ‘I met a man who promised me a job and a house and a better life in the UK,’ recounts Dorina. ‘He paid for my coach ticket to the UK, but when I arrived things were different. I was forced to have sex with lots of different men and often beaten. ‘After two months I managed to escape and stop a police officer in the street. He brought me to Unseen.’ When she arrived at Unseen Dorina was given access health services and counselling. The charity also offered financial advice, access to welfare benefits, and support with the police investigation and subsequent court cases. Reintegration services eventually helped to resettle Dorina in supported housing, and she was assisted to contact her family abroad.

Bristol’s abolitionists

Despite the great wealth the slave trade generated in Bristol in the eighteenth century, many of the city’s prominent residents spoke out in favour of abolition.

Hannah More was an influential educator, writer, and social reformer who wrote a number of widely read poems denouncing the slave trade. Ann Yearsley, known as Lactilla, or the Poetical Milkwoman of Bristol, was a self-educated milk seller who befriended Hannah More. Her principle contribution to the anti-slavery debate was her poem of 1788, A Poem of the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade. Robert Southey was a Bristol-born poet laureate who wrote a series of poems condemning slavery. In a poem called Sonnet III he described sugared tea as ‘the blood-sweeten’d beverage’. There is a bust of Southey in Bristol Cathedral. John Wesley was a Methodist Minister and spiritual advisor to William Wilberforce, the leader of the abolitionist movement in Britain. He preached anti-slavery sermons at Wesley’s New Room, a chapel in Broadmead.

Supply and demand

Contemporary slavery is an illicit trade in which the commodity is human beings, and there are vast profits to be made – the UN ranks it as the third most profitable criminal industry.

“In essence, ‘it is a supply and demand industry, fuelled by a demand for cheap labour, cheap services, cheap goods, cheap sex, cheap organs.”

Given that market forces drive the trade, a key part of Unseen’s work is focused on tackling slavery in businesses and supply chains, by working to influence legislation. The ground-breaking Modern Slavery Act was passed into UK law in March 2015. Unseen led on transparency in supply chains (TISC) and championed the inclusion of a clause that requires businesses to report annually on what measures they are taking.

It’s early days, and there are limitations to this type of disclosure legislation which only requires businesses to report on what actions they are taking, rather than obliging them to change their practices. But in the main the act has had a positive reception from businesses who are keen to get on board.

The future

Unseen is currently developing a service for child victims of trafficking which will be the first of its kind in the UK to provide specialist care to this particularly vulnerable group. In October this year, the charity also launched the Modern Slavery Helpline, a resource providing advice and support for victims, concerned members of the public, businesses and frontline staff.

The charity is now looking to expand internationally, having been asked to set up services in Jordan, and is also looking at replicating its model in South Africa, the US and Canada.


Do more

To find out more about making a donation or organising a fundraising event in support of the charity’s work, visit the Unseen website.

Find out more about becoming an Unseen ambassador at

You can contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 012 1700.