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Modern Slavery in the unlikeliest of settings

Modern slavery is an umbrella term for activities involved when one person holds another person in compelled services. It is a serious crime that takes many different forms, and in recent years the government has been committed to its eradication through a programme of education, reporting methods and legislation.

Despite this, modern slavery is all around us, often just out of sight, with victims unable to leave their situation, or reluctant to come forward because of fear or shame. It includes sex trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude. It takes place is a wide range of settings, from people entrapped making our clothes, serving of food, picking outcrops, working in factories or working houses cooks cleaners or nannies.

Amazingly, in the UK, such people may even be NHS doctors.

NHS Doctor subjected to forced labour

Boardside is currently supporting a consultant in a large NHS Trust who was subject to forced labour. As incredible as it might seem the Doctor, who identifies as British Indian, was accused of fraud (later wholly exonerated) when he submitted invoices for work running ‘out of hours clinics’ aimed at helping to reduce waiting lists (WLI Clinics). His line manager later alleged that the work and subsequent invoices had been exaggerated over a period of three years. According to that line manager, the only viable option for the Doctor if he wanted to avoid involving the police and (shockingly) avoid bringing shame to his family, was for him to work more WLI Clinics, but for free, so as to repay the value of the alleged fraud.

An internal investigation at the NHS Trust found the Doctor to be entirely innocent, but such was the emotional and psychological pressure brought to bear that our client was prepared to go along with what his line manager demanded, in order to avoid the dishonour and shame of even being in the spotlight of having committed the serious criminal offence of fraud.

Employment law claim for race discrimination and modern slavery

The case, which has been submitted to the employment tribunal process and (as of 30th September 2020) is yet to be heard. Of course, it is a matter for the judiciary to determine the outcome in accordance with the prevailing legislation. A fair hearing naturally allows for the NHS Trust to put forward its response to the allegations, and those are yet to be received by the consultant, our client, who is the ‘claimant’ in this matter.

However, the facts that sit behind the claims are very disturbing, not least how various influential and senior people with in the relevant NHS Trust and other bodies (including the BMA) handled and approached the matter of modern slavery once it had been raised as an issue: essentially, it has not been dealt with at all, save for denial.

A call made by our client to the Modern Slavery Helpline confirmed that based on Home Office definitions, he was victim of modern slavery.

The most common offences recorded under modern slavery in the UK relate to trafficking and servitude, but the offence of forced labour still amounts to a significant percentage. The 2019 UK Annual Report into Modern Slavery reported that in 2018, 52% of all adult victims of modern slavery related to labour exploitation (33% was sexual exploitation). Forced labour is at the higher end of the modern slavery spectrum and involves the control, force, or coercion of an individual to perform work – exactly what is alleged by the Claimant in this unusual case.

The case was covered by The Guardian and can be viewed here.

Why is this case significant?

The idea of forced labour within an NHS setting is difficult to comprehend, but the facts are there to be seen. This case is important, as it demonstrates a complete failure to understand and then take appropriate action once the offences had been brought to light. For example, the requirement for our client to undertake the WLI Clinics was immediately stopped once the practice had been specifically brought to the attention of a more senior manager but the perpetrators of the crime, our client’s line manager and the General Manager, were allowed to continue in their respective posts, with day to day contact with our client. It is hardly likely that such a situation would have continued where the allegation was, say, of sexual harassment, but the idea of forced labour in this sense was simply not taken seriously.

The effect of the forced labour and then the impact of the subsequent actions of the NHS Trust, has had a significant and detrimental impact on our client. His personal welfare, in particular his mental welfare, have not been considered at all. Indeed, when our client specifically put to a more senior manager that the treatment meted out to him amounted to forced labour/modern slavery, that senior manager suggested that it was a matter of opinion and, astonishingly, even suggested that our client had actually ‘agreed’ to undertake those WLI Clinics for free.

It is anticipated that the Doctor’s case will be heard before an employment tribunal sometime in 2021. We shall keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you too think this case important and wish to help then please head over to our client’s crowdfunding page.

Associated articles and statistics on modern slavery