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Britain is turning its back on slavery and the abolitionist ethos

The British struggle to abolish slavery has been described as one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organised citizens' movements of all time, but in recent years there has been an inadvertent repudiation of the abolitionist ethos. Britain’s laws once again facilitate enslavement at home, while the warm welcome afforded to the rulers and branding vehicles of the United Arab Emirates means we are turning our back on slavery abroad.

The British struggle to abolish slavery has been described as one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organised citizens' movements of all time, but in recent years there has been an inadvertent repudiation of the abolitionist ethos. Britain’s laws once again facilitate enslavement at home, while the warm welcome afforded to the rulers and branding vehicles of the United Arab Emirates means we are turning our back on slavery abroad.

Last week’s decision by home secretary Theresa May to remove the right of overseas domestic workers to change employers has been criticised in the strongest possible terms by anti-slavery campaigners, who rightly accused the government of, in effect, licensing slavery. A system of sponsorship-based employment will exacerbate the inequality of the power relationship between overseas domestic workers and their employers, and in doing so it will significantly increase the likelihood of the enslavement of thousands of young women who already constitute one of the most vulnerable sections of British society. Of the 326 migrant domestic workers who registered with Kalayaan, a London-based NGO, in 2011, 54% experienced psychological abuse, 18% physical and 7% sexual abuse.  76% were not allowed a day off, 53% worked 16 hours-a-day and 60% were paid under £50 per week.

Kalayaan have protested that the decision makes ‘no sense’ in view of David Cameron’s public support for anti-trafficking initiatives in October 2011, but one could argue that there is no contradiction between the new legislation and the type of exploitation which the British government is prepared to confront. Cameron declared that ‘the government are fully committed to combating human trafficking by tackling organised crime groups and protecting the victims of this modern day slavery.’ In doing so he perpetuated the misconception that modern day slavery is the preserve of highly organised transnational criminals, who are typically depicted as having the ability to ferry vulnerable young women across borders at will. This is a most convenient simplification of a complex issue, which on the one hand, allows states to tighten up immigration controls under the auspices of humanitarian protection, and, on the other, enables them to gloss over their own role in the facilitation of serious exploitation. One could even argue that it is the propagation of this simplistic trafficking narrative which has led, albeit indirectly and inadvertently, to a repudiation of the abolitionist ethos in the UK, more than two hundred years after slavery’s legal abolition in 1807.

When the celebrated abolitionist Thomas Clarkson collected the signatures of over 10,000 Manchester residents for a petition against the slave trade in 1787, and organised the boycott of slave-produced sugar a few years later, he led a campaign which rejected parochialism and which was founded in the belief that the mobilization of public support in Britain could help to end the global trade in slaves. Clarkson would be aghast to know that in 2011 residents of Manchester are singing the praises of the deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, a country whose policies facilitate the trafficking and enslavement of millions of young men and women and whose influence is increasingly writ large on the British cultural landscape. Manchester City fans now chant the name of their benefactor Sheikh Mansour Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi to the tune of the slave song ‘kumbaya’ in the Etihad Stadium, renamed after the national airline of the UAE. Dubai long ago renamed Arsenal’s Highbury stadium after its own airline Emirates, and last year, in the same week as David Cameron declared his commitment to anti-trafficking initiatives, Dubai announced its introduction to the London skyline by providing £36 million for a project which will see the ‘Emirates Air Line’ ferry passengers in cable cars across the Thames between two new underground stops, Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Docks.

As Christopher Davidson, a leading expert on Gulf politics, has pointed out there is no financial gain to be had from these ventures. Where the British state is concerned, the UAE’s interest in its institutions has a foreign policy dimension - the fear of being invaded for their oil - but where the British people are concerned, the UAE relentless self-promotion also serves to deflect attention from the brutality which underpins its domestic rule, thereby militating against the type of outrage which Thomas Clarkson and his ilk so brilliantly exploited.

The system which regulates the recruitment and employment of some 4 million migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (and which includes a system of sponsorship-based employment eerily similar to that just adopted by the UK government) is significantly more exploitative than the visa system which the European Court of Human Rights found to be facilitating human trafficking and enslavement in Cyprus in 2010. Moreover, in the UAE, the Government is industry, making the country closer in character to a sovereign federation of corporations, than a corporatist state. Its leaders act like businessmen too, in the sense that they are acutely aware of the power of brands and the ability of public relations to promote them. The UAE throws millions of petrodollars at PR executives whose job is to promote a sanitised, family-friendly version of the UAE. By way of example, consider the following. In 2006, Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktum of Dubai and his brother were accused of the enslavement of thousands of child camel jockeys, some as young as three in a Miami federal district court. Presumably mindful of the irreparable damage which can result from an association with child slavery, the Al Maktums retained the services of a strategic public relations firm in California, whose website still proclaims the role they played in subsequent events: ‘When a lawsuit alleged human rights violations by a foreign government’s leaders, [...] turned a potential catastrophe into a public relations benefit. Working closely with the government’s lawyers and lobbyists, we proposed new programs that won praise from human rights advocates and were held up as model programs for the region.’ The Al Maktums made no attempt to claim they were innocent of the charges – the races were shown live on national television with the Al Maktums and the Al Nahyans watching their multi-million dollar steeds from an opulent grandstand - they simply spun the story on its head and declared themselves the saviours of the children for having the decency to send them back to Bangladesh and Pakistan with $1000 in compensation. It should come as no surprise to learn that the UAE is one of the biggest, and certainly the most public, funder of United Nations anti-trafficking initiatives.

Last week the British government was accused of turning the clock back fifteen years to a time when domestic workers were deported for experiencing abuse. The new UK legislation on migrant domestic workers is regressive and ill-informed, and NGOs would be well advised to challenge it in the courts. In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights held that immigration laws which either encourage or facilitate trafficking in persons constitute a violation of state’s assumed obligations to suppress slavery, servitude and forced labour. UK courts cannot overturn acts of Parliament, but they can read legislation in such a way as to give effect to the European Court and even if the Human Rights Act is replaced, a new UK bill of rights is unlikely to impinge on the ability of UK courts to ensure that the laws of the land are compatible with the right of individuals not to be held in a condition of slavery. However, it ought to be recalled that the fight to end slavery is, a global one, and in allowing the ruling elite of the UAE to pose as progressive leaders on the British stage, we have abandoned the principles of the abolitionist movement and turned the clock back two hundred years to a time when slavery was a reputable branch of commerce.

About the author

Nicholas McGeehan is a middle-east researcher at Human Rights Watch


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