Human trafficking for labour exploitation: Innovative approaches to prevention, prediction and protection

Research Institution / Organisation

University College London

In Collaboration With

National Crime Agency

Principal Researcher

Dr Ella Cockbain

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

January 2014

Research Context

In recent years, labour trafficking has become a recognised research and response priority at national and transnational level. In the UK, for example, labour trafficking features in the Home Office’s counter-organised crime strategy and its associated research agendum. The European Union’s ‘Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking on Human Beings’ highlights too the need for better responses to labour trafficking. When the Netherlands assumes EU presidency in 2017, forced labour is set to be a key priority area.


Yet, despite increased impetus towards tackling labour trafficking more effectively, even the most basic characteristics of this crime remain poorly understood. The research base has been characterised as fragmented and limited, with particularly pronounced gaps existing around offenders, empirical research, quantitative analyses and evaluations of interventions.


The overarching aims of our work are to:

  • Improve understanding of labour trafficking; and
  • Inform crime-reduction policy and practice, including measures to pursue offenders, protect victims, predict risk and prevent trafficking.

This project is led by Dr Ella Cockbain with the support of Professor Kate Bowers, in collaboration with the National Crime Agency.

The research has been designed in consultation with the National Crime Agency and the Home Office Organised Crime Research Team.


Other key stakeholders in the project include National Policing, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement.

Research Methodology

We will combine qualitative and quantitative methods to support a nuanced, multi-faceted assessment of this complex issue. While the primary focus is the UK, the research programme also has a clear European dimension. Key aspects of the research are:

  • A systematic assessment of the existing European knowledge-base on labour trafficking;
  • A large-scale analysis of all cases referred to the UK’s ‘National Referral Mechanism’ from 2010-2013 (n=6,858) to compare the characteristics of labour trafficking with other forms of human trafficking (e.g. sex trafficking);
  • A large-scale and in-depth analysis of labour trafficking cases alone (n=453) designed to assess the nature, scope and impacts of labour trafficking;
  • The development of empirically-substantiated individual- and area-level risk factors that will then be used to construct predictive risk maps;
  • A three-month period working with the Netherlands Centre for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement on an international comparative analysis of labour trafficking.

Interim reports and publications

E Cockbain, H Brayley: "Exploring Internal Child Sex Trafficking Networks Using Social Network Analysis"; Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1 June 2011, Pages 144–157

E Cockbain, H Brayley: "The Value of Crime Scripting: Deconstructing Internal Child Sex Trafficking"; Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1 June 2011, Pages 132–143

E Cockbain, K Bowers, G Dimitrova; "Human trafficking for labour exploitation: the results of a two-phase systematic review mapping the European evidence base and synthesising key scientific research evidence; J Exp Criminol (2018)

Cockbain and Wortley; "Everyday atrocities: does internal (domestic) sex trafficking of British children satisfy the expectations of opportunity theories of crime?";  Crime Sci (2015) 4:35

E Cockbain, H Brayley-Morris; "Human Trafficking and Labour Exploitation in the Casual Construction Industry: An Analysis of Three Major Investigations in the UK Involving Irish Traveller Offending Groups"; Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, Volume 12, Issue 2, 1 June 2018, Pages 129–149

Please contact principal researcher ( with any enquiries.

Date due for completion

February 2019
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