How do we encounter slavery in our daily lives? Most ‘good’ people are vehemently against it and would never dream of contributing to it in any way. While there has been more attention on modern slavery in recent years, it is something that happens elsewhere far away and other people are complicit and benefiting from it. And yet, our unintentional encounters with modern slavery are surprisingly frequent. While shocked and outraged that it exists, and the estimates are that over 40 million people globally are in different forms of slavery, we cannot deny that we are connected to it. Within the UK, there are an estimated 11,700 people living as slaves (Global Slavery Index, 2016).
Slavery can take many forms, such as:
- Forced labour, which is work that people do against their will;
- Bonded slavery, where people borrow money and if they don’t repay it, they must work it off;
- Sexual slavery, where young girls and boys, and adults are lured by the promise of good jobs;
- Chattel slavery, where people are the property of owners who buy and sell them.
The similarities amongst all of these is that slavery generally originates in places where there is poverty – where people who live in poverty have few prospects and are the most vulnerable. They frequently end up in situations where their freedom is curtailed and others profit from their work.
But slavery is not just something that happens ‘over there’. Slavery also plays part in our everyday lives, sometimes with people being aware of it, but frequently not. In 2015, the UK government passed the Modern Slavery Act which criminalised slavery and human trafficking. Unfortunately, for many, the Act does not go far enough in dealing with the root causes of slavery. There have also been additional criticisms that frequently it is those who are enslaved who are also punished by this criminally focused Act, as they are deported back to their poverty and treated as criminals themselves. Having said that, the UK government – like some other governments such as the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, Australia, and Germany – have acknowledged the presence of slavery and human trafficking, both criminalising it as well as placing various measures to mitigate it. Within the UK, the Modern Slavery Act has meant that the topic of modern slavery has entered public discourses. Additionally, while much of this Act does not affect corporations, provision 54 of the Act calls for corporate transparency in supply chains. Thus, companies with a global turnover of £36 or more who do business in the UK must annually disclose the steps they are taking to address slavery in their business and in their supply chains.
While it is great that some countries have put in place legislation such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, this neither means that the problem of slavery is solved, nor does it mean that we can relinquish our responsibilities to do something about it. We encounter slavery on a regular basis. For example, in 2018 in the UK, the first three people were sentenced under the Modern Slavery Act, two of whom were jailed for their role in trafficking Vietnamese girls to work in the UK’s nail bar industry. Whether it is in nail bars, or employing domestic workers who have been brought here under false pretences’, or purchasing clothing from countries with appalling labour practices where people are working in slave conditions, our involvement with various forms of slavery is frequently not far away. But it is instinctual to not acknowledge that which causes us discomfort. In his classic study of both the personal and political ways in which uncomfortable realities are avoided and evaded, Stanley Cohen, the late and eminent sociologist, described this as the process of ‘knowing and not knowing’. He argued that denial can exist at many levels: the individual, the organisational or the societal levels. With all its flaws, progressive (while not perfect) legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act, are a means to ‘acknowledge’ the issue of slavery and to bring it home.
So, if we suspect slavery, what do we do? We can report suspected cases of slavery through apps like Unseen. The app explains some of the characteristics of people living in slavery and it makes it straight forward to report suspected slavery situations. An additional action is that we can ask questions of the origins of products and stop buying them if they are produced by people in conditions of labour slavery. We can also lobby our own members of parliament to ensure that anti-slavery legislation is not being used as means of punishing those in slavery conditions by criminalising them, but is used to punish those benefiting from slavery. And finally, we can think beyond the slavery itself, and critically ask questions as to why slavery exists – what are the root causes of this slavery, which is typically poverty – and how we can link with others to try to eliminate these situations of poverty and inequality that are the breeding grounds for slavery.