ASPECIAL rose has been planted this year in universities all over the north of England. In Hull, York, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastleupon-tyne, students have found an original way to highlight the continuing scandal of forced labour in Britain. They’re right to do so.
Only last month, a civil order was placed on a car-wash operation in the West Country, which is accused of keeping its Romanian workers in disgraceful conditions. Last year, a Kentbased couple had to stump up £1 million in compensation and legal costs for the six Lithuanian workers they exploited and there were revelations of beds supplied to John Lewis and Dunelm Mill being made by a now defunct company in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, that employed slave labour.
It’s estimated that, at any one time, 13,000 people are being abused in this way in Britain, often in agricultural work. This realisation led to the peachy-pink Modern Slavery Rose being bred by Colin Dickson, who is the sixth generation of his family firm in Northern Ireland to grow roses.
The idea started last year when the Modern Slavery Garden won two awards at Chelsea, giving birth to a campaign using flowers to raise awareness of the plight of workers living in appalling conditions and being paid a pittance. It’s a modern version of Josiah Wedgwood’s great campaign to support the anti-slavery movement. He made a medallion that you bought to show your support and to provide a discussion point with your friends. It helped to make people aware of the evil of slavery and this new rose must do the same.
Exploitation is all too easy and can reach into some of the most respected high-street names. Take eggs as an example. People who care about animal welfare buy free-range eggs. They would be appalled to find that, until last year, they were inadvertently contributing to one of the worst forced-labour scams. Almost every major food retailer appeared to have been caught out when the activities of Darrell Houghton and Jacqueline Judge were revealed.
They were directors of DJ Houghton, a chicken-catching service that provided labour to major producers of free-range eggs. The workers’ job was to catch the hens that were no longer laying and the company became a major provider, sending its minivans carrying the catchers to farms all over the country.
The High Court found that they had not only failed to pay the national minimum wage, but had made unlawful deductions from their employees’ wages and had failed to provide them with adequate facilities in which to wash, rest and eat. The human misery behind this dry legal statement has resulted in successful claims for significant compensation.
Sadly, the problem is continuing in the farms and factories of Britain. When people speak of modern slavery, they think immediately of conditions in the Far East or South America, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to look at ourselves. In a country with virtually full employment, many jobs are spurned by all but the desperate. These people, often immigrants from Asia and the poorer parts of the EU, or those with mental-health problems, are vulnerable pawns in the hands of men and women without conscience.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was designed to beef up our powers to deal with this, but, as the commissioner appointed under its provisions has shown, there’s still little action on the ground and the problem is increasing. Mr Dickson’s rose may only be a small symbol, but this campaign deserves the support of every countryman. Decent farmers and growers should be the first to demand that these abuses end.
‘People think of slavery in the Far East or South America, but it’s clear that we need to look at ourselves