Just two weeks ago, the UK was ravaged by the report of 39 bodies being found in the back of a refrigerated lorry in Essex, and now disturbing claims are coming to light about the potential connection to the underground cannabis industry.
The bodies were reportedly of Vietnamese descent, which ties into an increasing theme of vastly underpaid Vietnamese migrants working in illegal cannabis factories.
Anti-slavery groups in the UK have been researching the increase in trafficked Vietnamese workers who are being enslaved to work in the cannabis and nail bar industries, with most of the males being forced to work on cannabis farms whilst the females are sent to nail bars, and both men and women are often forced into prostitution.
Pham is one of the suspected victims of trafficking who tragically died in the lorry last month. She sent a final text message as she was dying in the freezing refrigerator that she was travelling from her hometown of the Ha Tinh province in Vietnam, which suffered a devastating environmental disaster in which chemicals spilled from a steel factory and poisoned the water resources up to 125 miles away.
This is the sad reality for most of the victims of modern slavery from Vietnam, who are dispatched into the back of sub-zero lorries after being pushed to illegally migrate elsewhere due to circumstances such as environmental disasters or poverty with the promise of a real job and professional training. They subsequently end up at a cannabis farm or in another manner of servitude whilst never actually being paid a penny for the work they are forced to carry out.
It marks a depressing reminder of how serious the cannabis underworld can be, and how important it may be to look into legalising the drug in order to eradicate the murky black market and put an end to lives being lost as a result.
It allegedly costs up to $40,000 to pay for a trip to work in the UK illegally from Vietnam, with promises often given about full-time work and benefits, although this often isn’t the case.
The last official reporting on modern slavery victims found that there was around 13,000 potential victims being used in some type of slavery in the UK in 2013, with the National Crime Agency assessing that the actual number of individuals being exploited was gradually increasing, despite the government directly spending approximately £39 million on modern slavery in 2018 and subsequently increasing the amount to £61 million in 2019.
The number of reports of modern slavery crimes that were recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year up to March 2018 had increased by 49% since the previous year, totalling to 3,337 modern slavery offences.
In 2017, it was found that the third most common origin of potential victims of modern slavery for both adults and children where those originating from Vietnam, after the UK itself and Albania.
The Salvation Army Charity found that more Vietnamese men had been referred to them between July 2018 and July 2019 than any other nationality, with numbers increasing to 209 people in that period, resulting in a 248% rise since the last recorded number throughout the previous five years.
Another charity – Ecpat – found that the number of child trafficking victims had also taken a steep upturn, with Vietnamese referrals rising from 135 in 2012 to 704 cases in 2018.
Legalisation’s best selling point
Cannabis has now been legalised across Canada and numerous states in the US. While tax revenue is often touted as the main benefit, the destruction of the black market is surely a far better selling point.
If the UK was to legalise cannabis production and distribution it would effectively cut off illegal grow houses, which often exploit migrant workers and ill-gotten electricity.
There is a growing trend in the UK that sees cannabis growers steal electricity from their neighbours, this unfairly leads to a rise in the average electricity prices for everyone living in the area.
According to a 16-year-old Vietnamese migrant called Minh: “It was like another kind of world, I didn’t really even feel human. I understood very quickly that the plants were more valuable than my life.”
After a horrific ordeal including being raped, kidnapped and eventually trafficked into the UK with the purpose of growing cannabis for organised criminals, young boys and girls like Minh end up sleeping on a single mattress on the floor surrounded by thousands of pounds worth of growing equipment and cannabis.
Minh recalls of his miserable time guarding the cannabis farm that ‘his only visitors were Vietnamese men who would appear at the house every few weeks to check he was looking after the plants properly. They barely talked to him, leaving boxes of frozen meat that he heated up in an old microwave in the kitchen. They always locked the door behind them when they left. Apart from that, he was always alone. Behind the blackout blinds, days merged into night and back to day.’ Inside, Minh sat in the dark and the filth.
In addition to being treated as a mere afterthought in regards to the cannabis plants, if the authorities end up catching wind of the crop and raiding the building, the trafficked workers often end up being treated as criminals instead of victims of exploitation by the police, as they want to put the blame on someone for the crime.
If an exploited individual decided to escape, they would face the reality of homelessness in a place they are situated illegally, or in most cases the threat of death after being caught by those placed in charge of them.
Minh makes up just a small part of the huge black market cannabis network which supplies around £2.6 billion worth of weed in the UK, where modern slavery is rife and full of vulnerable children as they are perceived to be cheap as well as easy to manipulate and threaten.
Minh’s case is one of thousands in the UK, although statistics are hard to gather as most remain undocumented and hidden due to the illegality of the crime.