Page last updated at 00:14 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

'Anti-slavery laws' before Lords

Flower picker
Campaigners say new laws are needed to tackle "modern-day slavery"

The House of Lords is expected to vote later on proposed new laws for England and Wales to deal with what campaigners are calling modern-day slavery.

Liberty and Anti-Slavery International say servitude and forced labour remain widespread, with some migrants being held against their will on low wages.

They say prosecutions are difficult because of a lack of clear offences criminalising such practices.

Ministers have insisted current laws give victims enough protection.

The campaign groups argue existing employment laws and legislation covering offences such as false imprisonment are inadequate.

They hope to see two new offences created - one of holding someone in servitude, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and a second offence of forced labour, punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison.

Passports taken

A proposed amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill has the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, as well as the Unite union and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

Campaigners say some migrant workers are being forced to accept low wages and long working hours because of intimidation and threats from their employers.

They cite cases of domestic workers who have their passports taken and are not allowed to leave the homes of the families they work for.

Many agricultural workers are also exploited, they say.

Aidan McQuade, from Anti-Slavery International, said: "Forced labour will remain a reality in the UK unless adequate legislation is put in place and enforced.

"Getting the police to prosecute those who hold people in modern-day slavery is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear offence criminalising this practice.

"The existing legal provisions fail to protect victims or ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice."

Campaigners have warned that the UK could be taken to the European Court of Human Rights because many cases are not being prosecuted.

The director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, said: "In an age when new criminal offences have flown out of Westminster like confetti, the lack of an effective anti-slavery law is a gaping hole in the protection of the vulnerable."

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