COMPANIES are to receive surprise visits from police checking whether employees are the victims of human trafficking.
The new “welfare checks” will not be intelligence-led, meaning any firm from across Scotland could be targeted.
Police will focus on industries that have a reputation for employing victims of trafficking. Nail bars in Glasgow have already been subjected to the checks.
Police Scotland has ramped up its focus on human trafficking since the launch of the single force in April. This had seen the creation of a national unit dedicated to the problem, as well as regional champions for all 14 divisions.
Officers now believe that victims are even less likely to come forward than those of other under-reported crimes, such as rape and domestic abuse. That has led police to the conclusion that officers must be proactive and search out the victims for themselves.
Detective Chief Inspector Ruth Gilfillan, of Police Scotland’s National Human Trafficking Unit, said: “I go looking for victims. We don’t wait for them to come to us.
“It takes a very brave person to come out and say ‘I’ve been trafficked’. So we are looking at some of the crimes, and some of the industries, where they may find themselves being exploited.”
These include Edinburgh’s saunas, which have been the subject of police attention in recent months. Raids over the summer were linked to exploitation and human trafficking.
Legitimate businesses in industries such as hotels, farming, fishing, and construction can also be involved in human trafficking.
The nail bars of Glasgow have already been targeted, and the regional human trafficking champions are now set to visit all types of firms across their areas.
On the nail bar industry, Gilfillan said: “I can’t say that is intrinsically linked with human trafficking, or the labour industry, or the construction world.
“But we have to improve the procedures we have in place. That means going out looking for victims.”
The visits are relatively informal, with officers looking for signs that a person has been brought to Scotland against their will.
“We will be asking questions like ‘where are your documents, how much money do you have’,” Gilfillan said.
“If people don’t have documents or money, don’t make eye contact, or have a fear of authority, that person is a possible victim of trafficking.”
Latest Home Office figures show a slight rise in trafficking referrals, up from 93 in 2011, to 96 in Scotland last year.
However, police are reluctant to put too much stock in these figures because of under-reporting of the crime. Officers admit they do not know the true scale of the problem.
“My own view is we don’t know what the picture is in Scotland, but it does exist and we are committed to tackling it,” Gilfillan said.
The most common nationality of victims coming to Scotland is Chinese, followed by Vietnamese and Filipino. Of 29 under-18s forced into Scotland, 11 went into forced labour, nine were sexually exploited, and five ended up in domestic servitude.
Police and Commonwealth Games organisers are also mindful of the potential for the Commonwealth Games being used as a means of exploiting people.
“As Games infrastructure is developed, Police Scotland has been working with the construction industry to raise awareness of human trafficking and forced labour issues,” a UK government trafficking report said.
“A Games-specific toolkit has been prepared by the Police Scotland delivery team for all officers, designed to incorporate all relevant national guidance into a bespoke human trafficking guide for officers and staff deployed to the games.”
Human trafficking campaigners have been calling for tougher laws to help tackle the crime and protect victims.
The Scottish Government plans to introduce a human trafficking aggravation law, which means tougher sentences for crimes in which human trafficking was a factor.
Jenny Marra, Labour MSP, welcomed the police welfare checks but believes the measure does not go far enough.
She said: “I am delighted to see Police Scotland taking proactive steps to tackle human trafficking in our communities. However, I believe we need to empower police with better laws.
“Currently there is no clear definition of human trafficking in Scots law, which makes it difficult for officers on the ground to identify trafficking when they see it.
“That is why I have proposed new legislation for Scotland that will embed the international gold standard definition of human trafficking into our law, so that police have the best possible chance of identifying victims and catching traffickers.”
Graham O’Neill, an expert on human trafficking in Scotland, added: “Police Scotland are right to take a proactive approach to remind legitimate businesses in sectors that are known to have links with trafficking.
“However, any approach must keep an eye out and minimise unintended consequences of victims being driven more underground, as well as being alive to the possibility that where illicit activities are found some perceived offenders may, actually, be committing criminal acts as a manifestation of their trafficked predicament.
“With these safeguards in place, the proactive approach may prove effective.”