Modern slavery and human trafficking are much more prevalent than previously thought, the National Crime Agency has said.
There are cases in “every large town and city in the country”, the NCA said, with the organisation currently assisting 300 live police operations targeting modern slavery.
The cases involve alleged victims as young as 12 being sold to families in the UK from Europe, and the NCA has launched an advertising campaign to raise awareness of the signs of modern slavery in everyday life.
Will Kerr, NCA director of vulnerabilities, said: “The more that we look for modern slavery, the more we find evidence of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable.
“The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone previously thought.
“This should not be acceptable in any way, shape or form.”
Mr Kerr said there were “lots of different outlets” for people trafficked into the UK to be working illegally and against their will, with many affecting people in everyday life.
Examples include those working at car washes and in industries like construction, agriculture and food processing.
They often receive very little pay and are forced to put up with poor living conditions.
Others sold into slavery could be kept in pop-up brothels, where sex workers promised a better life are instead left penniless, while some can be working in cannabis factories.
“As you go about your normal daily life and as you’re engaged in a legitimate economy accessing goods and services, there is a growing and a good chance you will come across a victim who has been exploited in one of those different sectors,” Mr Kerr said.
“That’s why we are asking the public to try and recognise the signs and to report their concerns and suspicions to us.”
Signs of slavery include visible injuries, a distressed appearance and any indication they are being controlled by another person.
Anyone with information about possible slavery gangs can contact the NCA on 08000 121 700.