The powerful Black Lives Matter movement has triggered a debate in Scotland about how we confront our country’s past. This important debate about the role Scots played in the slave trade is overdue. But we must also remember that slavery is not only part of Scotland’s past. It is part of our present too. 

Modern slavery is taking place all over Scotland. Every single one of our 32 local authorities has had cases of trafficking or exploitation. In 2019, there were over 500 cases of people being trafficked or exploited in Scotland. That number looks set to rise this year. And without question there are many more cases that have gone unreported. 

Modern slavery takes many forms. Its victims are both men and women, adult and child. There are cases of both sexual and labour exploitation. Its victims can be born-and-bred in Scotland, have moved here years ago, or only just arrived. Modern slavery takes place in our cities, towns, villages and countryside. Often, it takes place in plain sight.

All over Scotland, there are women trafficked into sexual exploitation, forced into prostitution by traffickers. They work in appalling conditions, at great risk, terrorised and traumatised by their traffickers and the men who pay for sex. Other victims have been found working for illegally low wages – if they are paid at all – in nail bars, car washes, construction sites, and elsewhere. 

READ MORE: Behind closed doors, gang’s family traded in victims’ misery

They have their wages withheld, and their lack of English and support networks is exploited. Other victims are locked into dangerous environments to cultivate cannabis plants, used by their exploiters to transport drugs around the country, or forced to beg on our streets. 

It gets worse. Despite causing difficulties for us all, the coronavirus lockdown is a gift to traffickers. Many victims are being forced by their traffickers to take greater risks than ever. They may be forced to work in conditions without social distancing, or prevented from accessing healthcare, or be compelled to take risks with their health to earn money for their traffickers. 

And the lockdown has made it harder for us to find those people who need our help: their traffickers have moved them off the streets, and public services are stretched as we deal with the coronavirus crisis. 

Furthermore, councils are increasingly concerned that the economic impact of the crisis will make even more people vulnerable to exploitation. Thousands of people in Scotland have lost their job, or seen their incomes disappear. 

Traffickers will be moving in, to prey on the most vulnerable: forcing them to work in unsafe conditions or for illegal wages, or by tricking people into a debt they have to work to pay off, but never can. Furthermore, many migrants in Scotland have lost their job in the crisis. Even those who are entitled to benefits may not know their rights, or how to negotiate our systems of public support, and they may not have developed personal support networks of their own. The risk of exploitation is great. 

More must be done to protect victims, and potential victims, from modern slavery – and we all have a role to play. Scotland’s councils are doing all we can to combat this brutal exploitation taking place in our communities. 

Guidance developed by Cosla for local authorities was launched by spokesperson Councillor Kelly Parry in 2019, to enable staff to spot the signs that someone has been trafficked and provide them with the critical support they need. We work closely with the police, NHS and other bodies to disrupt traffickers and help victims.

READ MORE: Neil Mackay: Amid covid and racism … if we want to build a better world, let’s start with police interrogating Prince Andrew

Councils are embedded in our communities, so we are working locally to spot the signs of modern slavery. Tackling this horrendous crime means working in partnership with a range of stakeholders. Councils, schools, the police, border force, charities and community groups all have a critical role to play. 

And so too do members of the public. Anyone who sees anything that appears to be an emergency should dial 999. If it is not an emergency, but a cause for concern, dial 101. If unsure, it is always right to call 101 rather than not reporting at all. Human trafficking is a hidden crime, which means that the outside signs can be hard to spot. Businesses need to check their supply chains and report suspicious activity. The more information the authorities have, the better the response.

There is currently a national debate about the role of slavery in Scotland’s past. We must also remember that modern slavery is part of Scotland’s present. Councils are at the heart of the fight against modern-day slavery, and we will continue to work with other organisations to work hard to ensure it is not part of our future.

Councillor Alison Evison is the President of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities