Hiding in plain sight

“Who wants to be in the business of combatting slavery for the rest of their life?” Andrew Wallis OBE, chief executive of anti-slavery charity Unseen, isn’t contemplating a career move. But he is keen to make himself redundant.

Established in 2008, Unseen provides services, advocacy, and advice towards its goal of ending modern slavery. It does this by taking a “micro to macro” approach that combines services for victims of human trafficking with tackling the systemic issues of slavery.

Winner of a Charity Times Charity of the Year Award in 2015, Unseen has an income of under £1 million but is making a difference from its Bristol roots to international level.

There is no doubt it is vital work. The scale of the problem is staggering, with Home Office estimates suggesting up to 13,000 people may be victims of slavery in the UK alone.


Unseen began when motivated people discovered an unmet need. A church Wallis was leading was looking at how it could do more to support young people leaving orphanages in Ukraine. When church workers pressed the orphanages on what happened to people upon leaving the facilities, they discovered many end up as drug addicts and/or sex workers, and many more get trafficked.

“The traffickers turn up on turf out day and the kids get into the back of cars and are never seen again,” Wallis says. “Then I saw a story that traffickers were moving people through the UK via the regional airports onto the US in order to avoid the big hubs – the Heathrows and Gatwicks – where there is awareness of the problem.”

These discoveries prompted Wallis to write to every Member of Parliament, local councillor, and chief constable in the Bristol region to ask whether human trafficking was a problem there and, if so, what help was needed to tackle it.

Wallis learned the problem was real in Bristol, and at a significant scale. At the time police were aware of between 65 and 75 residential properties in the region being used as illegal brothels, through which criminals were profiting from the enslavement and exploitation of trafficked people.

But the police were hamstrung in what they could do about the problem.

“All they could do was arrest the victims for immigration crimes and remove them to a B&B or hotel overnight. They would disappear and the police knew that they were going straight back to their traffickers and being moved to another party of the country.”


Safe housing was needed. Unseen launched with the aim of providing it, and opened its first safe house in 2011.

The eight-bed facility is the only safe house for female survivors of human trafficking in the South West offering round the clock support. Unseen has recently opened another similar facility for men.

Unseen is part of the national referral mechanism, as a sub-contractor to the Salvation Army. As a provider offering specialist 24/7 support, the charity gets “all the most complicated cases”. A safe house offering specialist care for children is to be launched this year.

“We take the most at risk survivors, whether that’s at risk from traffickers or at risk to themselves because of the trauma they’ve gone through. In terms of the kids, there’s no specialist provision in the UK at all, so this is our response to the problem,” Wallis says.

In 2013 Unseen launched its resettlement, integration, and outreach service to help people recover and play a part in society after they have left the safe house.

“But we didn’t want to just build a more and more sophisticated safety net,” Wallis says. “We want to fundamentally move the macro levers so things actually improve.”

A big part of that is advocacy work, pushing policymakers to change or introduce laws to help end modern slavery.

Starting in 2011, Wallis chaired the Centre for Social Justice’s work on modern slavery, culminating in an evidence based report in 2013. That report, It happens here, called for a Modern Slavery Act and legislation covering businesses’ supply chains, a commissioner on the issue, more integrated policing and better protection for victims.

Many of the recommendations were subsequently taken up and are now on the statute book via the Modern Slavery Act, the last piece of legislation passed in the last Parliament. The report was acknowledged by the Home Secretary as the catalyst for the Bill.

“What we’ve seen in our eight years of existence is a shift from very little reporting and understanding to an Act, much more focus by policing, and it’s up there in the media and public consciousness. But parallel to that we see our services constantly full, and the number of victims identified in the UK growing 30 to 50 per cent every year.”


Unseen has grown from a conversation in 2008 to a multi-faceted charity turning over more than £755,000 last year. Expenditure of £726,450 left a surplus of almost £29,387 last year, and at year end the charity maintained reserves of more than £411,000.

Wallis is clear that the charity needs to grow rapidly to meet its objective, given the scale of the problem.

Contract income currently covers around 40 percent of the charity’s funding. But Unseen enjoys the support of a host of funders and foundations including Big Lottery, Comic Relief, Police & Crime Commission, Sir Halley Stewart Trust, and more.

Trust income last year made up 39 per cent of Unseen’s funding, and individuals are a growing income stream having contributed 19 percent. Income generating activities raised 2 per cent of the charity’s funding.

It is an area the charity is looking to grow, and invested in a fundraising officer to work alongside Unseen’s fundraising manager last year.

A new income stream has opened up via Unseen taking over a national 24/7 helpline, providing access and support to those affected by and interested in combatting slavery as well as reporting potential occurrences of modern slavery. The UK Modern Slavery Helpline and Resource Centre is set to launch in October out of Bedfordshire and can be contacted on 0800 0121 700.

“We want that to become the resource centre for the UK as well as a place for victims to come forward safely.”

Unseen is also looking to increase its activity internationally. This has involved Wallis contributing to a number of international forums and working groups, and will extend to practical support when the charity completes the process of establishing a unit to deliver services on the ground in Jordan.

“Eighty per cent of my time is spent at the strategic level and looking to develop the charity internationally. In the last year alone we had 26 different nationalities through our services. We are international by nature.”

Collaboration is also a key plank in Unseen’s approach. Contributing to the policy debate in the UK and abroad, and working with other civil society organisations form an important part of tackling the problem, given its scale.

Wallis says modern slavery is “hiding in plain sight” in towns right across the country, with the explosion of hand car washes and nail bars highlighted as particular examples.

“But it doesn’t end there. If you’re wearing cotton clothes, and eating food, and you’ve got a smart phone – because of global supply chains – 40-50 slaves have probably worked for you to have those items. This issue has become so entrenched in our society it’s going to take a collaborative effort to try and stop it.”

Working with others is also important, Wallis says, because of the lack of developed and experienced organisations within the space.

He compares it to the initial response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS, where early efforts to tackle the problem were ineffective due to a lack of coordinated or systemic solutions.

Unseen works with NGOs, police, frontline agencies, government, and increasingly, business. The private sector is an important partner in tackling slavery, due to the part it plays in many supply chains.

“We can’t do this on our own, and the NGO community can’t do it on its own. Government can only do so much and really that’s limited to legislation and policy – and Government is financially broke as well. One of our big focuses has been drawing corporates in and saying ‘this issue does touch you, especially when it comes to your supply chains’. Because they have the smarts and the resourcing to effectively tackle it.”


Human resources can be a challenge, due to the specific skills and experiences demanded from the charity’s core service of caring for survivors of human trafficking.

Unseen employs around 50 paid staff, in a mixture of part time and full time roles. A smaller number of volunteers supplement this base, but they are deployed in public facing roles rather than providing support.

Volunteers are helpful in delivering Unseen’s training programmes, which aim to increase awareness of modern slavery among those who may encounter it and provide them with the skills and knowledge to respond.

Wallis stresses he is focused on keeping costs down within the charity. The chief executive’s background in the private sector informs his approach to running the organisation.

Unseen is “run as a business” overall, and Wallis says its charitable status is simply a function of that being the most sensible legal form for an organisation tackling this particular problem to take. There is a close focus on ensuring the back office is as lean as possible.

“We have total quality management procedures across the organisation. We’re very driven by hitting and exceeding our targets. Yes, they’re fully charitable aims, but I’m always looking at the financials. I keep getting told off because I’m not allowed to use the word ‘profit’. But for me if I can’t generate profit I can’t then invest in the charity to take it forward to reach more victims and achieve our aim of putting ourselves out of business.”

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