The Perpetrators of Modern Slavery Offences: Motivations, Networks and Backgrounds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Law


Since the turn of the century, increasing international attention has focused on the problem of modern slavery. Policy development has nevertheless raced ahead of academic research on the subject, of which there is a genuine dearth. While international bodies and governments have tried - not always successfully - to produce estimates of the scale of the problem, and there are now a handful of studies documenting the plight of those trafficked, there are hardly any studies that have been undertaken with those regarded as the perpetrators of the trade. The aim of this project is to produce a better understanding of the problem of modern slavery informed by first hand interviews with those convicted for these offences. It will use arrest and conviction data to profile perpetrators together with in-depth interviews with those convicted under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to explore how and why some people traffick others, what circumstances and social networks have contributed to their offending, as well as what has impeded it.

The project will:

1. Map out the contours of modern slavery as recorded by the police over the three years since the inception of the Modern Slavery Act.

2. Solicit offenders' own accounts of their role in the crimes for which they were convicted - whether 'enablers', 'recruiters', or 'exploiters' - how they justified this to themselves, what specifically was said to those they trafficked, to what extent they understood the laws they were breaking and any attempts they have made to leave the businesses of modern slavery behind. These accounts will be anonymised and archived for use by other researchers.

3. Develop an understanding of how offenders become involved in modern slavery, including their first engagements with the trade, previous involvements in other types of crime, or migration and its facilitation, prostitution or pornography, drugs and drug trafficking and/or capacity for violence. Using highly responsive in-depth interviews techniques and social network methods the project will further extrapolate the relations perpetrators have with those who worked alongside, beneath and above them in such activities, including how kinship, romance and intimacy, and/or financial indebtedness have impacted on their engagements with trafficking and/or migration journeys, as well as how they knew their victims. The roles played by people in positions of authority - whether teachers, family members, those involved in criminal enterprises or officials - will be closely examined.

4. Contribute new models of modern slavery from which practice and policy interventions can be derived. The research will help contribute to the development of a new framework for dealing with offenders convicted of modern slavery offences. It will also enable those working with victims to develop approaches to safeguarding that are informed by empirical research on how offenders operate, alone, collectively and through the exploitation of vulnerable people who are highly dependent on each other and/or illicit activity for their subsistence.

The research team - which consists of two criminologists and two methodologists - will seek to demonstrate how trafficking is variously facilitated across family ties, criminal networks, legitimate business, and diaspora communities. The research will be conducted with the support of the National Probation Service with a focus on reducing reoffending by developing knowledge and understanding about the people who commit these offences, as well as Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire Police. The project will report routinely to a steering group comprising policymakers, police, immigration, offender management and organisations working with victims. The application is supported also by Greater Manchester NGO Modern Slavery Forum. A PhD studentship focused on victims is being undertaken in conjunction with Hope for Justice in parallel to this project.

Planned Impact

At an international level, this project speaks directly to concerns currently being articulated by Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the UN's Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, who has highlighted the need to widen the focus of international efforts beyond law enforcement to incorporate a grasp of the rights (or their absence) of migrants, the plight of the global poor and global inequalities in life chances and healthcare. At a national level, the project has been devised in consultation with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner's Office and speaks directly to core objectives within the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner's Strategic Plan 2015-2017. These includes 'Developing partnerships with academic and research institutions and promoting external high quality quantitative and qualitative research into modern slavery issues in order to fill key evidence gaps and develop a stronger evidence base'. The project responds squarely to the UK Home Office's Strategy which requests closer dialogue with academic researchers in order to establish a research base from which future policy might draw insight; an ambition informed by calls from victim-focused organisations to generate a more holistic understanding of why modern slavery happens. Broad and Gadd have been directly engaged with the Home Office Modern Slavery Research Unit throughout the drafting of the proposal and have been invited to share the findings from this project with their team and colleagues in Cabinet Office.

The following organisations have expressed a willingness to take part in the project steering group and work with the research team to ensure the project's outputs speak clearly to pressing practice and policy concerns: The Home Office Modern Slavery Unit; Greater Manchester Police, specifically Operation Challenger (which comprises immigration officials, the Probation Service, HMP Risley and Styal Prisons, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire police, Programme Challenger and its multiagency modern slavery team (which includes Social Services, Border Force and Immigration); the Anti-Slavery Commissioner's Office (Dr Claire Brickell), the North West National Probation Service; Stop the Traffick, Hope for Justice and The English Collective of Prostitutes.

With the steering group's assistance, the project will (1) inform national reducing reoffending strategy by identifying salient characteristics and pathways of those prosecuted for modern slavery (2) contribute towards the development of effective multi-agency working practices with victims (3) respond to the national and internal political demand for better knowledge of how offenders operate. The research team will consult regularly with public and third sector organisations (via our steering group and beyond); establish a website supported by a twitter feed and blogs; and build up a following for the project's findings and briefing notes. Our strategy of media engagement will be developed in collaboration with our steering group partners and the University Press Office and will be both proactive and reactive. A core aim will be to shift debate away from unhelpful dichotomies that idealize victims and demonize offenders in ways that are counterproductive to reducing the incidence of human trafficking. Victims will benefit from this shift in public debate if it manages to show how modern slavery is a product of the confluence of offenders' motives and wider legal, economic and social factors that render the extreme exploitation of people - especially migrants - as desirable or profitable alternative to the legitimate options at their disposal. An industrial fellowship application will be pursued towards the project's close to enable members of the project's steering group to assist the research team in shaping their findings in ways most relevant to those involved in combating modern slavery.


10 25 50
publication icon
Gadd D (2018) Troubling recognitions in British responses to modern slavery in The British Journal of Criminology

publication icon
Lightowlers C (2020) Victims and suspects of modern slavery: Identifying subgroups using latent class analysis in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice

Description Contribution to APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade inquiry
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Description Written evidence to the UK Government's Modern Slavery Inquiry.
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description University of Manchester Research Institute - Tough Choices - Romanian sex workers' in Manchester
Amount £14,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Manchester 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 04/2020
Description Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The blog was posted on policy@manchester and was tweeted and retweeted several times as well as being accessed through the policy@manchester site.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018