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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain vowed on Tuesday to step up its fight against modern-day slavery, warning that the discovery last month of three women imprisoned for 30 years in horrific conditions in London was just the tip of the iceberg.
Home Secretary Theresa May said police last week rescued a further 17 people in Leeds, northern England, mainly Slovakians, who were living in poor housing with no access to local support services while forced to work long hours for little or no pay.
Speaking at an international women's rights conference, she said there had never been a more urgent need to tackle modern slavery which can include human trafficking, forced labor and marriage, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.
"We all know that there are countless more examples of this hidden crime at this very second, in this very country," May told the second annual Trust Women conference, organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International New York Times.
"This is simply unacceptable in modern day Britain."
May said it was impossible to know the true scale of modern slavery in the UK or other countries as it was a hidden crime and many victims suffered in silence, too scared to speak out.
The inaugural global slavery index released by the charity Walk Free in October estimated there are almost 30 million people living in slavery, with almost half of those in India.
The index suggested at least 4,400 people were enslaved in Britain with May adding the number of potential victims reported last year to Britain's National Referral Mechanism set up to identify human trafficking victims rose by 25 percent to 1,200.
May said the British government was introducing a Modern Slavery Bill that would raise the penalty of anyone convicted to life imprisonment and create an anti-slavery commissioner.
This would complement a newly-created modern slavery unit involving police to track down organized trafficking gangs and lobbying other countries to tight up their anti-slavery laws.
But she said she was determined to do more in the wake of the rescue of a 69-year-old Malaysian woman, 57-year-old Irish woman and 30-year-old Briton enslaved in London for 30 years.
A man and woman, aged 73 and 67, were arrested on suspicion of domestic servitude and immigration offences after the women were freed but released on bail pending further inquiries.
Investigators said it appeared the two older women had joined the household when it was part of political "collective" but they were still piecing together what had happened over the years.
May announced a review next year to look at what further steps could be taken and called on companies to be certain they did not work with suppliers involved in trafficking.
"The steps we're taking will help this country reach the point where we never ignore this evil, never allow slave masters and those who look to exploit other women, men and children to think the UK is a safe place for them to operate in," she said.
Head of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Monique Villa, said slavery was rampant globally and it was horrific that people cost as little as 60 pounds ($100) to buy, with some slaves tattooed with the names of their owners.
"Most of us here today have probably met a modern-day slave without knowing it. It can be on a bus, in a nail salon, in a posh hotel. Anywhere. In London, in New York, in Dubai. They walk among us," Villa told the two-day conference.
editing by Stephen Addison