The myth of modern slavery

‘200 years after Britain abolished slavery… it’s back.’ This was the grim warning issued by Channel 4’s recent documentary, The Modern British Slave Trade. It claimed that ‘13,000’ people in the UK are slaves, ‘trapped’ in a ‘hidden underworld’. The scale of slavery in Britain ‘continues to rise’, it stated.

These are bold claims. Has the slave trade from the distant past really returned to these shores? Of course overly harsh and repulsive labour conditions should be met with condemnation. Exploiting the labour of the vulnerable and the destitute is cruel and repugnant. But as previously noted on spiked, this doesn’t amount to a return of 18th-century-style slavery.

There have been two high-profile prosecutions in recent years, which became the main focus for the documentary: the case of William Connors, an Irish traveller who had settled in Leighton Buzzard, and the more recent case of Ivars Mezals, from Cambridgeshire. In 2012, Connors (and members of his family) was convicted of holding men in a state of servitude at the Green Acres caravan park in Bedfordshire, and forcing them to accept paltry wages for work. This is clearly wrong, but it’s not equivalent to 18th-century slavery. Nor is the case of Mezals – a Latvian man who was convicted in 2014 of acting as an illegal gangmaster. This was nothing to do with slavery. In fact, while Mezals was being sentenced, the judge, David Richardson, made it clear that the case was ‘not concerned with modern slavery’ or ‘concerned with human trafficking’. Framing such cases of injustice as ‘modern slavery’ only serves to trivialise past horrors and cloud our understanding of the problems we face today.

The Modern British Slave Trade led viewers to believe that Britain is awash with slaves, trapped in a ‘hidden world’ that only TV producers can gain a ‘unique insight’ into. The 13,000 figure quoted by the documentary is, at best, a very poor guestimate. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Bernard Silverman, who produced the statistic, admitted that modern slavery was seriously tricky to find. He said that it is a ‘great challenge to assess its scale’ and that the evidence is ‘inevitably incomplete’. In other words, Silverman and Channel 4 want us to take this ‘inevitably incomplete’ evidence and speculative statistics as the gospel truth.

Slavery hasn’t returned. The Slave Trade Act of 1807, and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, abolished the trade throughout the British Empire for good – these reforms changed the world. In his book The British And Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, 1838-1956, the historian James Heartfield notes the importance of these laws. They ‘were the most remarkable and humane’ reforms in British history, he writes. Comparing historic cases of slavery with condemnable modern-day work practices belittles the horrors of the past.

Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.

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