Nursery workers urged to ‘Spot the Signs’ of domestic slavery

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Early years workers are in a unique position to spot modern day slavery, says Emilie Martin


Emilie Martin, operations manager for the Salvation Army's Anti-Trafficking and Modern Slavery Unit

Domestic slavery is the third most prevalent form of Modern Slavery, and I encounter victims all too regularly. In 2016, one in ten female modern slavery victims who were helped by the Salvation Army were Nigerian. The practice is often, but not always, linked to child fostering, with young people being promised a ‘better life’. But when the relationship is taken advantage of, victims can be isolated from their families, working exhausting hours for little or no pay without access to education or healthcare and facing daily abuse

We’re supporting a pilot campaign to help tackle modern slavery in the UK. It focuses specifically on helping those trapped in Domestic Slavery, where victims are often kept against their will to carry out exhausting tasks including cooking, cleaning and childcare for ten to 16 hours a day with no pay. As victims usually have childcare responsibilities, professionals working in early years or with young people are in a unique position to spot potential victims dropping off and collecting young ones at nursery. We want to call on these - and other frontline professionals and the wider community - to learn to spot the signs of domestic slavery and, if they see them, report worries to the Modern Slavery Helpline.

One Nigerian lady we supported was, at the age of ten, made to live with a couple in the UK who she was told to refer to as ‘mum and dad’.  Years after her arrival she was allowed to enrol at school but wasn’t allowed to speak to the other students and would be punished for inviting friends to come to the house. When she turned 16, ‘dad’ began to sexually harass her and she ran away. Eventually, she met a man who took her to Citizens Advice to get help. After receiving specialist support from the Salvation Army, she has gone on to complete her A-levels with support from a circle of friends from college and the church.

As operations manager my team and I help modern slavery victims from the point of referral – when they are first identified as needing help and start to go through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The NRM team has five days to decide whether to grant the individual reasonable grounds that they are a potential victim of modern slavery - during this time, if they are destitute, they’re given safe accommodation. Regardless of immigration status, if someone is confirmed as a potential victim and needs a safe place to stay, the Salvation Army transports them to a safe house. All victims are granted a minimum of 45 days for reflection and recovery, in reality most stay in our safe houses for an average of three months and in outreach support for more than 150 days.  Here, we do everything to make them feel comfortable and show them they are free again. One victim was so traumatised she didn’t trust anyone around her. It was the middle of winter and freezing but we opened every door and window, and sat with her to show her that she was free to leave if she wanted to.  

Safeguarding is an intrinsic part of early years care. The increasing prevalence of domestic slavery means we need professionals to look beyond warning signs in those they look after and be alert – where they can – to potential issues among the carers they come into contact with.

Important questions to ask yourself if you suspect someone is living in domestic slavery are:

  • What conditions are they living in?
  • Does their appearance suggest they are in need of sleep, food or medical care?
  • Do the younger children seem overly confident in telling them what to do?
  • Can they freely contact their friends or family?
  • Do they seem reluctant to speak to the teacher about the children?
  • Have their passport or documents been taken away?
  • Do they work in excess of normal working hours? Or seem to be responsible for the children 24 hours a day?

To tell the story from the victim’s perspective, Spot the Signs, shows how ‘Theresa’ was promised a better life in the UK, but when she arrived the family she was working for took her passport away, denied her an education and subjected her to abuse. She is rescued when a church member was able to spot the signs that she was being held as a domestic slave.

The Institute of Health Visiting (IHV) has also supported the campaign by producing training materials, Good Practice Points and e-learning slides, to educate health visitors on how to spot the signs during home visits. Health visitors, like others working in early years, may pick up on things which are hidden from the wider community.

I never fail to be shocked by what I see. I suppose that is a good thing. Really, people need to come face-to-face with domestic slavery to understand the long term impact on someone’s life.  It is happening – it’s out there in our communities.  If we face up to this problem, we can better help to protect the victims.

Emilie Martin is operations manager for the Salvation Army’s Anti-Trafficking and Modern Slavery Unit, delivering specialist support to potential victims of modern slavery.

To report concerns, seek advice or get help call the UK Modern Slavery Helpline 08000 121 700 or visit the website

For more information about the work of The Salvation Army go to

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