One thing we all agree with is that slavery is wrong. But what are we doing about it?
In the UK the current narrative seems to be Anti-slavers 2, Slavers 0. Two statues have been taken down, one by a mob, that of Edward Colston in Bristol (died l721), one by bureaucrats, that of Robert Milligan, slave owner, plutocrat and the man that created London’s docklands. He died in 1809.
But there is another narrative, of a society that turns its gaze away from what is happening today. We are all aware and yes, rightly ashamed of Britain’s involvement in the triangular trade that shipped millions of African men, women and children to colonies in the Caribbean and the United States. We now teach the shame of that, though often without recognizing how the UK put its treasure and blood into ending that trade. It is also worth reminding ourselves that at the time the UK decided to stop being involved in a trade that had existed throughout the entirety of human history, it was a radical, and yes, overdue departure.
But if we still want to wallow in the sins of our forefathers, and we are talking 8-10 generations past, should we not do something useful with our shame? Do something that might bring us up to the moral heights of the great abolitionist of yesteryear? The solution is here; with effort, work and honour it might be achieved.
We can end the slave trade.
Right now, estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) put the number of people who are suffering under the yoke of slavery in 2020 at 40 million worldwide. If that figure seems beyond belief it might be because in our cultural imagination slavery begins and ends with chattle slavery, the system by which one person legally owned another. In our minds eye we still think of slavery in terms of the cotton and sugar plantations. With slavery being officially illegal in every country in the world (Mauritania being the last to pass legislation to this effect in 1981, then later passing a law to prosecute slave owner in 2007), current estimates are there are still upwards of 40,000 slaves in the country, mostly black Africans owned by Arab masters. The definition of slavery is not as simple. Today the main two aspects are forced labour and forced marriage. As the ILO put it,
“The estimate of forced labour comprises forced labour in the private economy, forced sexual exploitation of adults and commercial sexual exploitation of children, and state-imposed forced labour”.
If the thought of dealing with this global problem is too strong for our guts, maybe we should just concentrate here at home in the UK. Let us end slavery here; surely we should be able to do that? Let us make the UK a beacon in the world, as it was when we put the blood and treasure of our nation on the line to end the formal trade during the 19th century.
Today in the UK it is estimated there are over 10,000 people in various forms of slavery. That is 10,000 lives who matter, right here under our noses. Not bronze statues to long dead men, living breathing humans. They are on our streets, in our communities breathing the same air, and drinking the same water, but we do very little to stop the practice and free them. With the political will we could, but that would take real hard work and effort.
According to the Office for National Statistics,
“There were 5,144 modern slavery offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019, an increase of 51% from the previous year. The number of potential victims referred through the UK National Referral Mechanism (NRM) increased by 36% to 6,985 in the year ending December 2018”.
Who are they? How can we make this stop? The three largest groups who make up these numbers are Vietnamese, Albanians and now UK born nationals, mostly children in the County Lines drug trade.
Many of those right now suffering under slavery have been trafficked into this country. This year we have seen hundreds more come across, even in a time of pandemic lockdown, the English Channel. Those are the ones we know about, but we know that many more evade the border patrol and unload their trafficked cargos on our beaches. Many of those people end up in forced labour, as sex slaves. The people who run the boats are today’s Edward Cottons, making billions from the business. The ILO has estimated that the value of trafficked human beings every year earning profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers. In 2014,
“The following is a breakdown of profits, by sector:
$99 billion from commercial sexual exploitation
$34 billion in construction, manufacturing, mining and utilities
$9 billion in agriculture, including forestry and fishing
$8 billion dollars is saved annually by private households that employ domestic workers under conditions of forced labor”
So yes, ask questions about some of the monuments in our cities, talk about the history, yes all that might be the right thing to do, though not through mob action.
But if we are serious about making Black Lives Matter, if we believe silence is violence, then just maybe we should be doing something practical about it, not just smashing a few monuments and taking a knee. We should be fighting modern slavery, and modern slavers.