History books tell the 400-year story of one of the most unfathomable practices ever engaged in by mankind – of human beings bought, sold and traded as commodities, and of men and women shackled together on slave ships destined towards a life of captivity. Today, Article four of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights affirms that, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. This is indicative of the radical transformation of the international community in its attitude towards an inhumane practice that should have never been allowed to occur.
Yet, the history books are incomplete, as slavery is not over. Modern-day slavery is a hidden epidemic that continues to haunt the lives of millions every day. It is profoundly disturbing to imagine that slavery in any form exists today. Even more worrying is the fact that the ubiquity of slavery has almost certainly been underestimated due to the profound difficulties related to the gathering of data about this insidious crime. This has translated into a lack of awareness about slavery, and has manifested itself in terms of political inaction. As long as slavery is out of sight, it is out of mind.
Recently, however, the issue of modern slavery has been broached. After years of synthesising and evaluating huge expanses of data, the Walk Free Foundation has produced the world’s first ever Global Index on Slavery, which measures the prevalence of slavery in 162 countries across the globe. With the report bringing slavery out of the shadows, governments can no longer hide behind the excuse of ignorance in order to keep slavery off the agenda. The index has laid the foundational groundwork for the fight against slavery. It is now up to the international community to use its findings in order to decisively advance towards a slave-free world.
The global index suggests that modern-day slavery occurs at a level of severity unprecedented in previous figures. It estimates that a staggering 30 million people are affected by modern-day slavery worldwide. The index defines slavery as “the condition of treating another person as if they were property – something to be bought, sold, traded or even destroyed”, and includes forced labour and human trafficking under the umbrella term of modern-day slavery. This most sobering aspect of the report’s findings is that, of the 7.1 billion people in the 162 countries investigated, every single country has members of its population living in this unacceptably cruel condition.
It is undeniable that slavery is a truly global problem. Its complex and diverse manifestation worldwide means there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. Ending modern-day slavery requires a multifaceted approach involving individual governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and – most importantly – a solid commitment from the international community.
For some, the haunting reality of life as a slave is all they have ever known. The country topping the global index with the world’s highest prevalence of slavery is Mauritania. Dubbed “slavery’s last stronghold” by CNN, Mauritania still has up to 20% of its population enslaved. People can be bought, sold and given away as gifts. The most pressing obstacle to combating slavery in Mauritania is that slavery is not just a practice – it is a mindset. Slaves are indoctrinated to accept their situation, and religion is often invoked as a justificatory device – that slavery is God’s command. The shameful lack of awareness worldwide about slavery’s normalization in some parts of the world can be rectified by the revelations of the global index. For these revelations to have any impact, they must be backed up by action.
The situation in Mauritania is unique because change cannot start from within. The Mauritian government continues to vehemently deny the existence of slavery. The country became the last in the world to criminalise slavery in 2007, and this was largely due to international pressure. Since then, only one slave-owner has been prosecuted, and no law enforcement strategy exists to address slavery. The findings of the index prove that it is untenable to refute that endemic slavery exists in Mauritania. However, implementing change will simply not occur without sustained international pressure on the government. A comprehensive strategy for change begins with letting the Mauritian government know the world is watching. In turn, targeted pressure must be followed by lending support to local NGOs and grassroots initiatives – which are currently hunted by the Mauritian government – which seek to challenge deeply embedded cultural values, hold masters accountable, and empower freed slaves. The involvement of the international community is of paramount importance. Heightened awareness is the key to ensuring that no Mauritanian believes that their destiny is to be a slave.
However, slavery is not just a problem that occurs in distant lands. In fact, modern-day slavery happens right here on our doorstep. In a world in which geographical distance is often an excuse to sideline issues that are, so to speak, not in our backyard, the revelation that the slavery problem is on every country’s radar may provide the needed impetus for slavery to be given the heightened concern it deserves.
The UK is a country that has made timid steps to fight slavery, but it lacks the political will to venture any further. The index reports that there are over 4,000 people in the UK who are enslaved. The UK’s slavery problem is deeply enmeshed in the private business sector, and the use of slavery insidiously lurks in the supply chains of leading corporations. One notable case in 2012 involved the revelation that Noble Foods, the Happy Egg company supplying eggs to leading retailers including Asda, Tesco, M&S and Sainsburys, had used a labour provider which in turn used Lithuanian workers as slaves. Through debt bondage, the provider forced their slaves to work without pay for up to 17 hours by day, and sleep in squalid overcrowded accommodation by night. Deprived of all freedoms, these people were stuck in a vicious cycle with no option of leaving.
The UK has taken some measures to address modern-day slavery in the corporate world. The Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains Bill (TISC) builds on successful legislation in California, and requires every company in the UK with gross receipts exceeding £100 billion to publicly disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery. The Centre for Social Justice Report “It Happens Here” argues that this legislation will “engage the business sector in the fight against modern slavery”. The Bill was heralded by David Cameron as evidence of the UK storming ahead to “lead the world in eradicating modern-day slavery”.
Yet in reality, this legislation is woefully inadequate to make any difference on slavery whatsoever. TISC legislation applies only to the largest firms, requires meager self-regulatory reporting, and simply does not propose any change to prevailing business models. The impact this supposedly revolutionary legislation will have in the fight against slavery is almost laughable, and is symptomatic of reluctance amongst policy elites to tackle slavery through the economic sphere.
The UK’s political window-dressing is evidenced when compared to Brazil – a country clearly possessed of the political will to address slavery. The country has implemented a nationwide system of enforcement mechanisms, sanctions and incentives for businesses. This could have a real and substantive impact on slavery in the corporate world. However, one country’s political will cannot end a global problem. Ending slavery once and for all requires the international community to be inclined to implement a governing mechanism on an international scale. Such international policy options will only become viable if the international community embraces the index’s findings and recognises slavery as pressing on the global agenda.
The shackled slaves of the transatlantic slave trade may belong to the past. However, the invisible chains trapping millions around the world into a life of modern-day slavery do not. A lack of awareness surrounding this crime has allowed the issue to be pushed to the bottom of the political agenda for too long. The alarming findings of the Walk Free Global Index on Slavery are a wake-up call to the world that this crime cannot be ignored any longer. Slavery is a problem with many faces, and requires a comprehensive international response. Slavery must be on the agenda of individual governments and NGOs, on the agenda of the international community, and on the agenda of every individual worldwide. There must be a sustained effort to end slavery in its modern-day form. The final chapter on slavery must be written to allow the history books on slavery to be closed once and for all.