When you hear the word ‘slavery’ what image do you conjure up in your mind: a line of sorry souls being dragged from their homes in 17th century Africa, shackled to one another and beaten into submission, or a traveller camp in the undistinguished 2011 town of Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire?
Slavery existed for millennia before it became a social and political hot potato and whilst it is now technically outlawed across the globe (Mauritania in West Africa was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981), there are estimated to be 10,000 gangmasters operating across a wide range of industries with the number of people working as slaves put at around 29.2 million as of 2009.
Most are ‘debt slaves’ largely in South Asia where people are bound to a lender and due to the size of repayments, the debt is virtually impossible to clear and can be inherited by future generations.
Other forms of modern day slavery include ‘forced labour’ where a person is threatened with punishment if they do not conform and ‘human trafficking’ that includes arranged marriages and sexual exploitation.
But is 21st century slavery very different from that which existed many thousands of years ago?
When agricultural technology improved to the point where farming the land became a successful industry circa 9,000 BC, the wealthy landowners soon realised the need for a large cheap-to-run workforce.
The slave industry became an established method of supplying cheap labour; the 6th Babylonian King Hammurabi wrote ‘The Code of Hammurabi’ (circa 1772 BC) outlining the rules of the slave trade and the Bible refers to the industry as a matter of course!
The Roman Empire enslaved entire populations and it was seen as a vital factor in Rome’s economy. Although there were many slave uprisings, the most famous being led by former gladiator and military leader Spartacus.
Mediaeval Europe slave trading was mostly confined to the Muslim and Christian invasions; between the 14th – 18th centuries the Byzantine Ottoman wars enslaved thousands of Christians forcing them to convert to Islam.
The Domesday Book of 1086 tells us approximately 10% of the English population were slaves. It may however come as a surprise to hear that following pressure from the Roman Catholic Church England was one of the first countries to abolish the slave trade from its shores in 1102.
But I hear you cry, what of Sir Francis Drake and the Atlantic slave trade from which the ports of Bristol, Liverpool and London grew ever wealthier? That was the Elizabethan irony as England continued to play a role in the extremely profitable industry of human cargo.
However, whilst there were no more slaves being traded here, the workhouses of the 17th – 19th centuries employed ‘forced labour’ including very young children. Many of the characters made famous by Charles Dickens were based on the pitiful lives of the workhouse population.
However, it was the industrial revolution and the Victorian era that started to see a change in public opinion; the Slave Trade Act was passed in March 1807 making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire and The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery itself.
On 10 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 4 states “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.
Since 1999 there have been a number of apologies made by ministers and other dignitaries including Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London who apologised for Britain’s role in the colonial slave trade and in June 2009 the US Senate apologised to African Americans for the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery”.
So now we have the law to protect us against the unscrupulous dealings of immoral slave drivers, so problem solved, right? Wrong.
You need only look at the tragedy of the Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle pickers to know there will always be someone willing to break the law if there is money to be made.
There were 23 Chinese men and women aged 18 – 45 who drowned in February 2004 and gangmaster Lin Liangren was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Unfortunately that didn’t help the families of the albeit illegal Chinese immigrants who died. Many of those families have now inherited the debts as a result of money paid to ‘snakehead’ gangsters who smuggled the victims into England.
As a result of this tragedy, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was set up to prevent the exploitation of workers primarily in the food production industry.
But the problem of slavery remains; in September 2011, Irish traveller brothers Jimmy, Tommy and Patrick Connors were charged under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The brothers forced a vulnerable group of men to dig roads; lay tarmac and paving without pay and forced them to live in cramped squalid conditions within the Green Acres travellers’ camp in Leighton Buzzard.
Then there are the hundreds of forced marriages that take place, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act protects an individual from being forced into a marriage; there are thought to be in excess of 8,000 cases in the UK each year.
So to return to my original question, is 21st century slavery different from that which existed many thousands of years ago?
It would seem not.