Shine A Light

Modern slavery: keeping it hidden

Why the British government's new Bill tackling slavery will not work.

Rohail Ahmad
6 March 2014


Screenshot 2014-03-05 23.21.52_0.png

Steve McQueen accepts Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave

Home Secretary, Theresa May, in a Spectator blog this week, sought to ally herself with Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years A Slave. She quoted his acceptance speech which dedicated his film to “all the people who have endured slavery. And to the millions of people who still suffer slavery today”. Her blog is perhaps disingenuous and certainly ironic, given that Britain was the main supplier of slaves to colonial slavery.

 In the introduction to the government’s draft Modern Slavery Bill, she says: “Modern slavery is an appalling crime” and: “This Government is committed to tackling modern slavery in all its forms.” Fine words. How does the bill measure up to them?

In the parliamentary debates and in committee (two hearings on child exploitation are due today), evidence has been heard from slavery experts, the police, social services and others relevant parties.

The US ambassador-at-large on this subject, Luis CdeBaca, talked about his country's “3-P” approach: prevention, protection, prosecution; his main point was that prosecution alone is not enough. The UK draft bill is similar: life-sentences for child-traffickers, more support for victims, and an anti-slavery commissioner. Close analysis reveals that this bill will not solve the problem, but, rather, keep it hidden.

The bill does not recognise or redress the historical root causes of modern slavery, and their contemporary geographical consequences. These causes were the European slave trade, and colonialism; the geographical consequence was the modern, polarised world, which is now struggling to rebalance itself through globalisation. Modern slavery is one symptom of this, along with the related problem of mass migration. Indeed, slavery never really ended. Instead, it was exported, in the form of cheap labour in poor countries, and structurally embedded in the international division of labour.

There is some recognition in the bill of the global nature of this problem: there is mention of slavery being a “global crime” and wanting to “stop it at source”. There is also recognition that the perpetrators are often family members: “Individuals can also be brought to the UK by their own families or family connections often for domestic servitude.” This offers the clue to recognise that modern slavery is not just an arbitrary aspect of organised crime but an effect of poverty, since only extreme poverty drives people to sell their own family members.

Theresa May says that slavery should “no longer [be] a hidden issue”, but the effect of this bill will be to ensure exactly that. This can be seen throughout the bill, for example in its offer to support people “returning home” and mention of “upstream work in source countries”. But the biggest failure of all is the government’s refusal even to contemplate the one measure that would truly address this issue: mandatory legislation on supply chains.

The bill does mention supply chains, but this crucial factor gets only one sentence, and an ineffectual one at that: “We will continue to work with businesses on a voluntary basis [italics added] so they can ensure their workforces and supply chains are not exploited.”

Labour’s Meg Hillier acknowledged this in the parliamentary debate of December 2013. She said that the problem could not be solved without knowing “how that supply chain works” and that it was necessary to “tackle each part of it”. But the weak point of her argument was in blaming the poverty-stricken countries of origin and expecting them to solve the problem, which they are structurally and financially unable to do. The responsibility surely lies with rich Western companies, who are being equally disingenuous about supply chains, as Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, recognises:

“I am on the board of the Ethical Trading Initiative. We have done some supply chain investigations over the past couple of years on anti-slavery. Frankly, I do not find it convincing when companies say that they do not know what is happening in their supply chains, right up to Rana Plaza, where more people were killed than in the entire Falklands War.”

 He goes on to say that voluntary codes are not enough: “History shows us again and again the various efforts and voluntary initiatives to end slavery – for example, in the United States under Hamilton and under Lincoln – which did not work.” He mentions the California supply chains act, which requires regular reporting of efforts to eradicate slavery in the supply chain, but says that this is insufficient.

All this surely shows that the only solution to this problem is for governments to make it illegal to employ slave/child labour in the supply chain. Ignorance would be no defence, which is a fundamental principle of law. Besides, Western companies have detailed spreadsheets showing how every single penny is spent; their supply chains should – and easily could – be equally accounted for. There is a precedent in the pioneering law that enables prosecution at home of those who use child prostitution abroad.

Muhammad Younus, Bangladeshi Nobel prize-winning economist, has recently called for an international minimum wage, which would have to be imposed on Western companies. A minimum wage would give people the resources they need to withstand the forces of modern slavery.

Labour MP, Frank Field, chaired the Modern Slavery Bill Evidence Review report on this bill, which summarised the problem and the evidence. In the report he recognises the critical importance of supply chain enforcement, but still claims that this bill will “once again” make Britain a world leader in the fight against slavery. The phrase echoes David Cameron’s recent boast about how Britain initiated the abolition of the European slave trade. That boast was hollow: Britain led this brutal trade and practised it for more than two hundred years. Britain’s leading capitalist position today, its banks, its infrastructure are based on that trade. Sadly, this bill seems to be another exercise in disingenuousness.

The UK draft bill purports to be the “foundations laid by this government to achieve a slavery-free society.” But in its proposed form – without the supply chain enforcement and the minimum wage – it betrays the vulnerable people it claims to help. It will never achieve a slavery-free world, and not even a slavery-free Britain; it will only ensure that the problem is kept hidden away. 

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