Felicity Lawrence first reported on people trafficking in the UK nearly 20 years ago after working undercover in a supermarket chicken factory. Her investigations into modern slavery have since taken her around the world, putting some of the biggest multinational corporations on the spot, and leading to a landmark UK High Court judgement for victims of slavery.
Receiving threatening letters from law firms representing those who hope to suppress her work is a regular “occupational hazard”.
Felicity won the Orwell prize for her exploration of migrant life in the Cambridgeshire Fens. The Guardian’s special correspondent will discuss this and more on Thursday at Fitzwilliam College, when talking about Reporting on Modern Day Slavery – book in on our website.
“We’re going to talk about the re-emergence of slavery in the mainstream Western economy, how that’s been possible, and what it’s been like to report on it,” Felicity said.
“Slavery never went away, but new forms have emerged, particularly around the exploitation of labour, and became entrenched without most people noticing.”
With the proliferation of social media, direct communication from governments and big companies’ sophisticated below the radar marketing, investigative journalism that questions what the true picture is has become more important than ever.
She added: “Quite often what I’m writing about doesn't count as news, but it’s happening around you and has crept up insidiously and people haven’t reported on the ‘why?’
“For example, the working conditions in meat factories and agricultural pack houses were not much reported and I had little idea about them until I went to see them for other reasons. Then I noticed things, and tried to work out what’s going on, and why.
“I am often called a campaigning journalist, but I don’t set out to campaign on particular things. I think people need to know what’s happening. I see it as my job to approach subjects objectively, describe them accurately, and keep an open mind.
“Our job (as journalists) is to hold power to account, particularly in a period like this (the COVID-19 pandemic), a genuine emergency where normal rules don’t apply. But that doesn't mean government shouldn't be subject to scrutiny or that you shouldn't say very loudly when things are going wrong.
“For example, I've had whistleblowers talking to me about conditions at places where they’re putting together the test kits and The Guardian has reported a lot on conflicts of interest in the awarding of contracts relating to test and trace.”
Her interest in labour exploitation and modern slavery was sparked by working on another story.
She said: “I was working in a chicken factory undercover, because I’d been tipped off about an alleged fraud where they were mislabelling cheap catering chicken full of water as free range, so I had to go and check that out.
“While I was there, I realised there were 19 nationalities working on the factory floor and there were all sorts of things going on. It really began there.
“At that point it wasn't called modern slavery – the terminology emerged later, along with legislation in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act – but I followed the resurgence of it, from about 2000.”
Felicity’s award-winning piece from the Fens The gangsters on England’s doorstep details extreme labour exploitation in East Anglia. Some of the victims were identified as victims of trafficking, but the perpetrators were not charged with modern slavery, but lesser offences.
“With that piece it was particularly important to describe it from all sides,” she added.
“It was before the Brexit referendum (in 2016) and – it was very obvious to me in East Anglia – that the extent to which migrant labour was being run by organised crime had and created huge resentment and fuelled the hard right. That was a key part of anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment.
“People there, with some justification, associated migration with crime. In Westminster, that was seen as bigotry, but the reality on the ground was stark… I would find it very difficult living there – and for the workers involved it's hell.”
Her work has contributed to change, and some raids and investigations, although she stresses the media have played just one part in highlighting the problems, working alongside unions, and anti-slavery campaign groups.
Enforcement continues to be a challenge. She added: “The crimes that point modern slavery may be lots of relatively small things individually, which don’t actually carry a big penalty. Overcrowded rental housing, deductions from pay, control of hours, unlicensed vehicles. It’s when you put them together that you get a coercive pattern of behaviour that traps people in misery.
“To identify what the prosecutable crime can be difficult, it’s frequently a small thing that provides you with a lever.”
She is grateful to The Guardian’s editors, and the newspaper’s in-house lawyers.
She said: “The press has got a really important role in making sure people do know and communicating in a way which is really direct, but also a key role in embarrassing people.
“The Guardian has always named names, which requires a huge amount of legal work and support from the editors-in-chief. It’s always easier to say ‘a big company’ but you have more impact if you name a company readers know they buy from – and people can be very threatening. We get lots of legal letters and threats.
“I've seen this get worse over the period I’ve been writing. It seems to me an outrageous thing to threaten journalists trying to report accurately, rather than be prepared to accept scrutiny. It’s tough. You can’t afford to slip on the tiniest detail.
“People glamorise investigative journalism, and it is an incredible privilege to do it, but an awful lot of the work – making sure you’re fair, giving people the right of reply, standing out in the rain for hours observing – is really, really nitpicking.
“You’re trying to get to the truth and it is quite often messy and complicated.”