17 years ago, the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 4: Right to be free from slavery & forced labour

The Human Rights Act protects the right to be free from slavery & forced labour.

This means that slavery, including modern day slavery, and forced labour is prohibited. Slavery is when someone is forced to perform compulsory work, earn little or no wages, and are effectively prevented from leaving or escaping. Forced labour covers situations where a person is coerced or made to work through threats, either physical or psychological

This right is an 'absolute right', which means slavery or forced labour can never be justified*. The government and public authorities have a duty to protect people from slavery, servitude and forced labour, through laws, investigations and practical help. 

In real life: Right to be free from slavery and forced labour

Making forced labour a crime

When Patience was brought to the UK as a domestic worker and nanny, there was no anti-slavery laws or systems in the UK. Patience was forced to work for little or no money, and was subject to physical and mental abuse. Her 'employer' took away her passport.

When Patience managed to escape with the help of a neighbour and reported her experiences to the police, the police force refused to take her allegations seriously. The police closed the case. 

On Patience's behalf, human rights organisation, Liberty, argued that the Metropolitan Police Force had failed in its duties to protect and fulfil Patience's human rights. Whilst forced labour was not a crime in the UK at the time, the case against Patience's employer was on the grounds of criminal abuse. 

Since then, holding another person in slavery or servitude or requiring another person to perform forced or compulsory labour has become an offence under UK law. 

(Asuquo v The United Kingdom, 2012)

Justice when the police fail to investigate

Three young Nigerian women were trafficked to the UK. Once in the country, they were abused and forced to work as unpaid servants in people's homes. They said that the police had failed to investigate their allegations over two and a half years. 

They took a human rights case against the police to the UK courts. The police argued that it had not been possible to commence an investigation because the three women had not cooperated, but the court rejected this, and said that the police did "nothing to commence an effective investigation". The court decided that the police were liable for failing to investigate these credible reports of slavery, servitude or forced labour.

(O.o.o. v.  Metropolitan Police, 2011)

* It is important to know that the following type of work is not included in the definition of forced labour:

  • work you have to do as part of a prison or community sentence
  • work the government requires you to do in a state of emergency, and
  • work that is part of normal civic obligations, e.g. jury service.