In 1807, after years of extra-Parliamentary action and slave rebellions in the Caribbean Island plantations, William Wilberforce finally managed to achieve a parliamentary majority for ending the slave trade in the British Empire. In 1833, the issue re-emerged with the passage of a second Act, this time abolishing slavery itself. So that was that: Parliamentarians could reflect in the moral glory of a job well done. Or was it?
Forced labour in fact remained a familiar part of the colonial landscape throughout much of the early twentieth century, most appallingly in the genocidal landscape of the Congo, regarded by King Leopold of Belgium as his personal fiefdom. At the end of French colonial rule in the 1960s there were still 200,000 in slavery; their descendants remain slaves today in the countries of the Sahel. In India there remains today the largest single concentration of slaves, with tens of millions of adults and children enslaved in debt bondage, a link between the so-called historical and contemporary worlds of slavery. These slaves can now be found in more modern industries, including brick-making, fish processing, mining, carpet production, gem-making, clothing and fireworks.
None of this, however, appeared to resonate in the UK. Yet recent revelations about the severe exploitation of children picking cotton in Uzbekistan, the clothing factory disasters in Bangladesh and the forced labour camps of Nepalese workers — more than a hundred of whom have died building Qatar’s World Cup facilities — have begun to shift public attitudes. Thanks to the tireless efforts of many campaigning organisations, people are starting to realise that many of these slavery-contaminated goods and services end up being purchased within the UK.
Slavery in the UK
So too are people beginning to understand that slavery is also here in the UK: the critical moment was probably the death ten years ago of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay. Detailed research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that forced labour in the UK is much more widespread than originally thought, with at least 4,000-5,000 cases likely to be current, although very few reach the courts. Additionally, it is estimated that there are over 5,000 women and children who have been trafficked into or within the UK. As researchers and journalists have shown and as the recent rescue of three women enslaved in South London reminds us, the trafficking and exploitation of women is occurring on our doorsteps. (See, for example, Chinese Whispers, by Hsiao-Hung Pai.)
The UK government has in recent years attempted to address the problem of forced labour in the UK: the 2004 Gangmasters Licensing Act was created to regulate labour providers in a selection of industrial sectors, including agriculture, and in 2009 a new criminal offence of forced labour was introduced. Furthermore, in response to growing awareness of trafficking in the UK, the government established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, signing up to European Conventions on trafficking in the process.
The Modern Slavery Bill
Overall the UK government response to the ‘discovery’ of modern slavery in the UK is widely criticised as inadequate and in some cases — for example, the question of restricted visas for domestic workers (see www.kalayaan.org.uk) — as making things worse.
Enter the home secretary, Theresa May, who is now seeing a Modern Slavery Bill through parliament, aimed at clamping down on trafficking and slavery offences. Her political motives aside, the Bill presents an opportunity for those concerned to get involved. MPs, although often sympathetic, are generally ill-informed and lobbying them can be quite effective. Organisations like Anti-Slavery International can provide guidance on which points to emphasise. It will not be an easy struggle: the two key battlegrounds will be ensuring that victims of trafficking are not labelled as criminals or illegal immigrants; and that proper regulation of businesses is introduced to limit the possibilities of forced labour. That, of course, goes completely against the grain of coalition policy.
Gary Craig is Professor of Community Development and Social Justice at Durham University, and Emeritus Professor of Social Justice at the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
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