Volunteer, Sian Owen runs the Hidden Voices, a Modern Slavery Support group in Bridgwater and was shortlisted for one of this year’s Modern Slavery Awards for her work.
How did you get involved with Hidden Voices?
I first heard about Hidden Voices as they ran a Hidden Voices training course at my church, St Francis in Bridgwater. That was about four years ago. I went to support the church but got very interested in the subject and went off and did my own research into what resources there were to help and became extremely passionate about it. That passion was consolidated after the death of a family member, who we later found out had been exploited.
What does your work involve?
I thought it is no good just talking about this in church, we have to get out into the community and streets and raise awareness of this so that is what I started to do. Initially the Town Mayor agreed to meet me and put me in touch with the leader of the Town Council who had recently written an article about Bridgwater being the first town to petition against slavery back in 1785. After our meeting he wrote an article about Modern Slavery and Hidden Voices. I also spoke at the town centre development forum alongside the then police commission and worked to build up contacts in the town, including with trade unions.
We try to attend as many community events as possible, including the Bridgwater Together event which is a celebration of the diversity of our community. People come along in their traditional dress with traditional food dishes. It was a fantastic day, then lockdown hit.
How has the pandemic affected your work?
I have be able to do some online training for village agents and they still keep in touch and call us if they have any concerns and we can then raise it with the appropriate agencies if needed, such as the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Agency. We have continued to be out and about and visible much as possible and my partner and I were even able to spot incidences of County Lines drug exploitation on early morning walks. Each morning we noticed the same group of children appearing from under a bridge and approaching cars that stopped nearby to exchange packages.
How can people help?
Everyone can learn to spot the signs and make a call. You can call the Modern Slavery Helpline (08000 121700), the local police on 101 or the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (0800 432 0804). You can also report it on their website (https://www.gla.gov.uk/).They may have had other calls that have caused concern and your call may be the one that makes the difference.
The easiest thing to do is know your neighbour. If someone moves a lot of people into a house and you see people leaving early in the morning and not returning in the house, you are more likely to get a feel if something is wrong if you have spoken to them. So start with saying ‘hello’! You can also choose where you shop as, of course, modern slavery is a global issue. Every large company should have a modern slavery statement. But also try and get a feel for the ethics of the company you are buying from. Think, has that t-shirt you want to buy for £1 really been produced in an ethical way?
If you are interested in doing more take a look the Hidden Voices course available on the Clewer website and do your own research.
Some people may be surprised to learn that we have slavery in Britain, and especially Somerset, today. What would you say to them?
Absolutely, people really don’t feel it is happening where they live, ‘What, in the 21st century’ is a common response. Modern Slavery is an umbrella term for all forms of exploitation, so people may be aware of sexual exploitation, forced labour and county lines drug running, but they may not be aware it is happening in so many places, in food processing plants, building sites and recycling plants. They think it doesn’t happen in their towns, or to people they know, but the majority of people affected are British or are in this country legally.
They are just vulnerable people who are suffering. And even after they escape their situation they often suffer with some element of post-traumatic stress and use alcohol or drugs to numb their pain.
How did it feel to be shortlisted for Modern Slavery Day award recently?
It was a lovely surprise just to hear I had been nominated. I do it because I am passionate about it, but it is nice that someone noticed. I’m very lucky as I have a partner who is equally passionate about this and a group of people around me too. It raises awareness of the issue too so that is great.