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No chains … but we must free the millions held as modern slaves


Laura Anne Jones MS is a Member of the Welsh Parliament and Shadow Minister for Equalities, Children and Young People – a portfolio that includes action on anti-slavery, domestic abuse, gender-based violence, and sexual violence. Here, she discusses the complexities of a problem as old as civilisation: Slavery.

WHEN you think of ‘slavery’, what springs to mind? Odds-on it will be the same as if you type the word into Google and search for images: the abomination of the transatlantic slave trade. This is not surprising. Slavery has been much in the headlines in recent weeks, with a statue to a slaver and philanthropist (an interesting oxymoron if ever there was one) in Bristol being pulled down and dumped in a canal surely one of the images of 2020.

But slavery is not a phenomenon of the 1500s to 1800s, nor was it limited to the transatlantic trade. In one form or another it has existed since civilisation began. For slavery to ‘succeed’, it requires economic surpluses and a high population density, and arguably it became widespread only with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution about 11,000 years ago. From Ancient Greece to the Old Testament and to the Shang Dynasty of China, slavery is part of our history. Slaves form part of many stories and films. The gladiators depicted in in films such as Gladiator and Spartacus were slaves by any other name. The latter film takes artistic licence in presenting elements of the Third Servile War, one of many slave rebellions documented in history. Vikings, Berbers – hence ‘Barbary Coast’ – even Britons and Welsh all took part in slave trades.

Slavery again reared its ugly head during World War Two, when the Nazi regime effectively enslaved millions in Europe, be they in work camps or elsewhere. Today, although it has been abolished in some forms, it is still with us. We call it ‘modern slavery’, but an image is harder to come up with. We do not have the reference points of manacled Africans or prisoners in rough cloth working a Roman farm. What we do sometimes have, however, is a picture of an articulated lorry and its container full of dead people.

In October last year 39 Vietnamese were found dead in a container in Essex. In 2000, 58 bodies were found in a sealed container in Dover. In 2008, 54 Burmese people were found suffocated in a container lorry near Phuket (it could have been worse; in total, there were 121 people in the airtight sealed container). Seventy-one bodies were found in a container in Austria in 2015. 

You could argue that these people were not slaves because they had paid to be transported and were economic migrants. Language blurs around such a grey issue, with this mode of transportation called ‘human trafficking’. This obfuscation dehumanises people, because they become merely goods, just cargo, like illegal guns and narcotics.

It is only these horror stories that tend to make headlines. We are exiting the crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken up an unfathomable amount of column inches and broadcast time, but human trafficking and modern-day slavery has continued unabated. Haven of Light, based in North Wales, is a grass-roots organisation that works to prevent and raise awareness of modern slavery and human trafficking.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that, by its definitions, more than 40million people are in some form of slavery today. This is made up of:

  • 24.9million in forced labour, of whom 16million are exploited in the private sector such as domestic work, construction or agriculture
  • 4.8million in forced sexual exploitation
  • 4million in forced labour imposed by state authorities
  • 15.4million in forced marriages

Still, 40million out of a world population of 7billion means we will not encounter them in the UK, will we? Probably not – if you avoid visiting prostitutes, nail bars and hand car washes, or you don’t eat seafood caught by Thai vessels, or wear clothes produced in sweatshops. The cheap Thai prawns in the supermarket may have been landed by indentured Burmese fishermen. That £2 (or £20 or even £50) top from a high street chain could have been sewn by a child – possibly a Uyghur – in a sweatshop. Those are a long way from here, but the Vietnamese people working in the cut-price nail bar on your high street could have been trafficked.

According to figures supplied by Haven of Light*, the nationality predominating in the ‘Top 10’ of victims in Wales is British. Out of the 284 persons in the list, 165 are British, a figure nearly ten times that of the next nationality, Vietnamese.

Modern slavery affects, overwhelmingly, women and young people. Estimates from the ILO suggest 70 per cent are female. Haven of Light estimates that some 13,000 in the UK could be victims, which means more than 9,000 women here.

What is being done about it? It is a very profitable business, with the ILO estimating its annual worth as more than 150billion dollars (£118billion). Perhaps the scale of the problem is part of the problem. It is simply too big, too all-encompassing, too ubiquitous to deal with. Alison Ussery, of Haven of Light, gives an insight into what is happening in Wales.

She says: ‘There are a lot of issues coming to my attention at the moment around the poor “conviction” rates, and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which is the system used to take victims into safety and the decisions about their status.’

The UK-wide NRM Alison refers to has seen an increase of 1,746 in 2013 to 10,627 last year. However, she cautions that many adult victims of exploitation chose not to enter the NRM for various reasons, while child victims are not given the choice.

Therefore, there are more people in modern slavery in the UK than the official data shows. She warns further that annual increases in NRM referrals do not indicate success, nor is there information gathered about those leaving the NRM, the long-term support, experienced, informed counselling, reintegration, repatriation, employment, education . . . the list goes on.

Back to Wales, the north in this case, and 97 people were referred into the NRM last year. Of these, ten were given positive conclusive decisions, there were two negative outcomes, and the remainder – 85 people – are ‘pending’, effectively in limbo, and nobody seems to know where they are.

This is a very serious issue, because when a vulnerable person is lost in the system, it increases the likelihood that they have become homeless, or have been re-trafficked.

Conviction rates are very low in the UK, as they are in Europe, and the perpetrators of trafficking and modern slavery are getting away with the terrible crimes of sexual exploitation, forced labour and criminality, or domestic servitude.

There are reports that lockdown has made it even worse for many victims, whereas the criminals have simply changed their methods of abuse. There is a lack of information made available to those – e.g. community groups and churches – that want to help victims or those at risk. Mostly invisible crimes have been pushed further underground.

While I am a Conservative, this issue transcends party lines and doctrine. It is about humanity and the rights of all people to be free, and I support the cross-party work and the efforts made by the Welsh Government, with initiatives such as the Live Fear Free anti-slavery campaign. 

We need the sort of crusade led by William Wilberforce to deal with modern slavery. His campaign took 15 years from the first Bill in April 1792 to when the Slave Trade Act – prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire – received Royal Assent in March 1807. If we are to prevent further victims, we must not take that long.

*Article produced with assistance of Haven of Light

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Laura Anne Jones
Laura Anne Jones
Laura Anne Jones MS is a Member of the Welsh Parliament and shadow minister for equalities, children and young people, a portfolio that includes action on anti-slavery, domestic abuse, gender-based violence, and sexual violence.

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