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Slave trade is alive, and thriving

November 24, 2013

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THREE women enslaved in an ordinary London house for 30 years: this is shocking. But it should not be a surprise. In the modern world the trade in human slaves is booming - indeed, by some calculations slaves alive today outnumber those stolen from Africa over four centuries.

In the ancient world slavery was an unquestioned fact of everyday life, essential to the economy and society of most early civilisations. It developed after the emergence of three ideas: the concept of personal property; the realisation that humans, like domesticated animals, could enhance an individual’s industry; and the principle of nations, which led to the possibility of peoples at war, and therefore prisoners of war, who were then used as slaves. In early African societies, slaves were a symbol of power, wealth and status. The slaves were prisoners of war, debtors and criminals, used for domestic purposes rather than commercial gain.

In 1444 a few hundred men, women and children were grabbed from the African coast by the Portuguese, baptised on arrival in Portugal, and sold by public auction. By 1460 a thousand African slaves were imported annually.

The subsequent plunder of the new world’s natural resources meant a labour force was needed for the gold and silver mines (and later plantations). Slave hunters turned to the UK, and for a while the streets of Bristol, in south-west England, proved dangerous territory for the young and gullible after dark.

But the slaves of Africa distinguished themselves. They were skilled craftsmen, knew how to domesticate animals and were immune to European diseases. In 1518 the Spanish government issued a contract to a Flemish merchant, authorising him to deliver 4,000 African slaves annually to Spanish colonies. In Brazil the Portuguese reached the same conclusions: they had to have slaves; they had to come from Africa.

The engine for the transatlantic slave trade had started. It was the largest international business of the time, with African slaves providing the labour that drove a new global financial system. It transformed the world, and our view of slaves and slavery, which became equated with Africa. Before the transatlantic trade, there was no apparent racial dynamic; as the trade developed, a racist ideology emerged to justify it.

England entered the slave trade late, but become the largest slaving nation on Earth. Everyone was involved: royalty, parliamentarians, churchmen, the celebrities of the age.

The campaign to end the slave trade was the first human rights campaign of its kind, and set the template for all such campaigns. In 1833, 180 years ago, the British parliament passed a bill making slavery illegal. Slavery was dealt a blow. But it has recovered well.

Kevin Bales, lead researcher on the global slavery index published last month, has calculated that the price of a slave (on average $90) is at a historic low. Although slavery is illegal everywhere, Bales says 29.8 million people are trapped in slavery - in debt bondage, slave labour, sex trafficking, forced labour, or domestic servitude. This compares with the estimated 12.5 million sent across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean - though, of course, the impact of transatlantic slavery over centuries cannot be downplayed.

Globalisation has seen the modern slave trade grow rapidly. It is easier than ever for traffickers to move “product” around the world. Technological changes have led to an increase in global organised crime, while the end of the cold war has weakened border controls. In 2005, it was estimated that regional conflicts and mass economic migration had caused 190 million people to move away from their country of birth.

Human trafficking is easier in these conditions. And it’s not hard to understand why it is popular with criminals: low start-up costs, minimal risks, high profits. Unlike drugs or arms, humans can be sold and sold again.

In 2010, the UK’s Anti-Slavery Day was introduced, and awareness of modern-day slavery is growing. However, much still needs to be done.

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, maintains that human trafficking is an important issue for this government, which in August announced that a slavery bill will be unveiled in the next Queen’s speech (which outlines the government’s agenda on the first day of a new parliamentary session in the UK). The MP Frank Field is chairing an informal inquiry ahead of the bill that has to be completed by Christmas. Finally things seem to be moving.

But new visa restrictions introduced by Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, tie migrant domestic workers to their employers, making them more at risk of abuse - and less likely to report abuse that does occur, because the result will be certain deportation and probable destitution.

Campaign groups have outlined other areas that could be improved: a smarter national referral mechanism to ensure that trafficked people are able to access services; wider scope for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, as it regulates those who supply labour or use workers to provide a host of services; support for victims; and an independent watchdog. Above all, the bill must be backed by ringfenced resources so that law enforcement agencies can do their job. Without this, the UK’s newly formed law enforcement agency targeting organised crime, the National Crime Agency, will always be a step behind.

As the three women who were freed this week begin their recovery, the rest of us must get over the shock of discovering that slaves may be living next door, and get on with the campaign to end modern slavery.

By arrangement with the Guardian