Slave Britain: chained to an outdated label

Describing trafficking as the 'new slavery' might flatter the egos of those who campaign against it, but it does little to challenge today's injustices.

Nathalie Rothschild

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It is widely claimed that although slavery was officially abolished 200 years ago, it is still thriving today. The Panos Pictures exhibition Slave Britain: The Twenty-First Century Trade in Human Lives, currently on display in London, tries to convey this very message. Organised in partnership with Amnesty International UK, Anti-Slavery International, Eaves, St Paul’s Institute and UNICEF UK, it is one of a number of events marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act by pointing to contemporary ‘slavery’.

Though people are thankfully no longer transported in chains on slave ships or auctioned in open markets, Slave Britain claims that numerous – ‘at least 12 million’ – men, women and children are still forced to live in slavery and that human trafficking is the fastest-growing form of slavery today. No wonder the Metropolitan Police in London have just launched an anti-trafficking unit, which they also announced with grand references to the earlier abolition of the slave trade.

Yet all this slavery-talk casts little light on patterns of migration today, or why people move around the world and what barriers stand in their way. Instead it seems designed to flatter the egos of those who campaign against ‘human trafficking’, so that they can puff themselves up as modern-day abolitionists.

Set in the atmospheric and impressive St Paul’s Cathedral, the Panos Pictures exhibition tells the tragic stories of people from around the world who have been exploited by friends and strangers. All the photographs are of individuals, some of whom look into the camera and into our eyes. Others maintain their anonymity; we see a pregnant Russian woman’s belly, a Nigerian woman’s hands on an open bible, a Lithuanian teenager’s face covered by her hair, her hand clutching a bottle of alcohol. In the section ‘living streets, hidden lives’ are photographs of British roads, neighbourhoods and hotels, but the people whose stories accompany the images are nowhere to be seen. The ‘modern-day abolitionists’ each pose with a prop. ‘The Support Worker’ Sister Margaret Healy (who co-founded the group Kalayaan) holds up the book Secret Slaves; on the bare white wall in the background hangs a cross behind a vase of tulips.

The testimonials in the exhibition are moving. Yet reading the displays that explain the whats, hows and whys of ‘modern-day slavery’, it also becomes clear that there are diverse reasons as to why these individuals are working in sometimes appalling conditions far away from their homes. Is it really helpful to understand it all as slavery, to compare individuals’ dire situations today to the systematic enslavement of thousands in the past? Using this term certainly helps to shock people into paying attention. But while the s-word evokes images of past injustices and inequalities, it obscures the complexities behind individual and global adversities today. Surely if we want to change people’s lives for the better, then we need to understand why inequality and injustice exist today rather than simply falling back on old labels in order to express a shrill outrage.

One display explains that poverty, social exclusion, war and other turmoil are at the root of human trafficking. The problem is that this list is so extensive, and the terms so broad, that it is doubtful whether this has any explanatory value at all. ‘Poverty’ in rural Africa means a very different thing from the (usually) relative poverty found in the UK. ‘Social exclusion’ is a term so vague that it seems to mean all things to all people.

Even ‘slavery’ itself is very broadly defined. The people defined as slaves by the organisations involved in this exhibition are not just those who have been kidnapped or tricked into going to another country to work against their will and without freedom and income. In fact, Anti-Slavery International even includes early and forced marriage as a form of slavery. Some have taken free – though doubtless tough – decisions to become migrant labourers and are easily exploited over here in ‘slave Britain’ because of their status as illegal workers. With such broad definitions, it is not surprising that ‘almost 12 million’ people can be defined as modern-day slaves.

Following this logic, even people seeking employment through recruitment agencies in London can be defined as ‘trafficked’. Imagine a young, poorly educated woman who comes from an abusive family. She reads an ad in the paper for administrative temping work. It sounds, to her, like a good opportunity to learn some skills and earn money. As it turns out, a temping agency offers her up to employers in exchange for a fee and a cut of her salary and she is made to carry out tasks that were not listed in the job description. This is just the typical experience of dead-end work in Britain, and it also isn’t very different from some situations that are defined as ‘slavery’.

Some would argue that it doesn’t matter if the categories of trafficking and slavery are broad. If we can just alleviate the suffering of the ordinary people represented in the Slave Britain exhibition, and millions of others like them, then does it really matter what words we use to describe them? Such labels seem to undermine the dignity of the individuals at the sharp end, while reducing them to objects of charity and pity. The organisations and individuals who help them get out of forced prostitution and other abusive situations are doubtless well-intentioned. Yet the exhibition’s appeal to humanitarianism and minimum legal protection misses the mark.

Slave Britain encourages visitors to become ‘modern-day abolitionists’; to sign a petition urging the UK government to make human trafficking a criminal offence and to ratify and implement the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings. They say this is the only international law that provides guaranteed minimum standards of protection for trafficked people.

What about campaigning to abolish laws restricting immigration and the rights of foreigners to work in the UK? Our immigration policies can lead to people being easily exploited. It is because of our stringent laws that people put themselves in often great danger and discomfort in order to come and work here. Why does the petition not address this? In January, prime minister Tony Blair announced that the UK would sign the convention, but only yesterday home secretary John Reid announced a new clampdown on illegal immigrants, which will ‘make life in this country ever more uncomfortable and constrained for those who come here illegally’. Reid also believes the root cause of the problem is exploitation. ‘We have to tackle not only the illegal trafficking but also the illegal jobs at the end of the journey’, he said (1).

Slave Britain does mention restrictive immigration policies and the government’s lack of protection for migrant workers, but it places more responsibility on the public, lecturing all Britons as if we are all secret slave drivers. It says that British men, some of whom are willing to pay for sex with foreign women and under-age girls, are creating and sustaining the market for sex worker traffickers. ‘Similarly, the demand for [as] cheap as possible labour to clean our houses and our hotels, to work on our construction sites and to produce cheap food, creates another market for traffickers to supply with people who have been tricked or coerced into working against their will.’ The exhibition brochure claims that ‘the growing demand for bargain products and services and the cheap labour that trafficking and exploitation provides, fuels this profitable trade’. I am surprised that no NGO has yet thought of introducing ‘slavery-free’ labelling on food, buildings and hotel towels.

Popular demand for cheap products and services could be a positive driving force for freer immigration, a more just labour market and an end to the shadow economy in which people are indeed vulnerable to exploitation. It’s this system, not our desire for consumption, that needs reforming.

While I was looking at photographs of ‘modern-day abolitionists’ who work to stop trafficking in human beings, a priest interrupted the throngs of tourists meandering through the cathedral to remind us that St Paul’s is a house of worship, not a museum. He urged us to give our thoughts to the poor and destitute and to those working to alleviate their hardships. Compassion may be a humane trait, but together with guilt and meekness, the messages of the Slave Britain campaign come across as modern-day preaching.

Nathalie Rothschild is reviews editor at spiked.

Read on:

Exposed: The myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’, by Bruno Waterfield

Ghosts in the immigration machine, by Nathalie Rothschild

(1) Reid targets illegal immigrants, BBC News, 7 March 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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