Learning from History and the Present: citizens and the struggle to end slavery

Keynote speech to the 15th Annual UNESCO Chair & Institute of Comparative Human Rights International Conference, University of Connecticut

I was asked to speak a little about the broad overview of contemporary slavery and provide some historical background on the struggle So I will try to do that.

I think an important place to start relates to the question of what do we mean by slavery. I am frequently dismayed at meetings of both academics and activists when some pose questions such as “What is modern slavery?” or “Is trafficking slavery?”

The struggle against slavery is one of the oldest human rights struggles in the world, so if someone is new to this field, as some important actors are, it is important to remember that we do not have to reinvent the wheel. This path has been trodden by giants before us and we are building on the work that they have done.

So what is contemporary slavery? When we in Anti-Slavery International talk about “slavery” we use that word as an overarching term for the human rights abuses defined in international law, principally by the 1926 Slavery Convention, by the 1930 Forced Labour Convention, the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery, the 2000 Palermo Protocol on trafficking, and the 2014 Forced Labour Protocol.

A good working definition of contemporary slavery comes from the 1930 Forced Labour Convention, which defines forced labour as all work or service extracted under menace of penalty, for little or no pay, for which the person in question has not offered themselves voluntarily. Trafficking is the technical process of moving people into situations of forced labour – so trafficking is indeed, by definition, slavery.

Lincoln sought a legal basis to end slavery in the United States

Lincoln sought a legal basis to end slavery in the United States

There are other important international laws related to this field, in particular on child labour and decent work, and there are important nuances within the slavery conventions I mentioned. But it is vital to note that this question of, “What is slavery?” is not a matter for social scientific contention of the sort so beloved by academics. It is something that has been established in international law as a result of considerable effort over the past 100 years to provide a robust framework for the continuing struggle against slavery. Remember how Lincoln had to struggle for a legal basis to end slavery in the United States. It is important to realise that we do not have to go back to that situation.

An Indian brick kiln

An Indian brick kiln

Part of the reason for this breadth of law in the international conventions is that contemporary slavery reflects a diversity of human experience: a life lived in bonded labour in Indian brick kilns is different in important respects from that of a Nepalese domestic worker in Lebanon, or somebody in chattel slavery in West Africa, or a “restavek” child slave in Haiti, or a forced labourer in American agriculture. Hence the responses to these problems must be nuanced and adjusted to the realities of those particular abuses in the time which they occur. The 2014 Forced Labour Protocol was adopted in recognition that the realities of forced labour have changed since the original Convention was adopted in 1930, and there will doubtless be other areas where there is a need for further extension and development of the international law, for example around the issue of child marriage.

But in spite of the spectrum of experiences of contemporary and historical slavery empirical studies conducted by Anti-Slavery International and others indicate that slavery emerges at the conjunction of three common factors: individual vulnerability, usually, but not exclusively as a result of poverty; social exclusion; and failure of rule of law.

The issue of social exclusion and discrimination is a fundamental one in slavery: when we look at historical slavery in the Americas we see that racism was both a cause and a consequence of that slavery.

Thus has it been, thus will it always be.

In Latin America today many in forced labour are indigenous people. In Western Europe most people in slavery are migrant workers. In South Asia most people in slavery are Dalits or from other scheduled castes or minority groups.

This is important for a variety of reasons, not least that it inhibits the issue from becoming a political one: if slavery is being inflicted upon groups and individuals who the wider society simply does not like, then that wider community is more likely to tolerate the abuses if they see them and not raise their voice to demand that governments do their jobs to stop the problem.

And slavery is very much a failure of governments’ most fundamental responsibility: establishing rule of law. Tom Bingham, one of the outstanding British jurists of the past 50 years argued that human rights, including, of course, an absolute prohibition on slavery, must be at the heart of any credible system of rule of law. But in a recent study we conducted of child labourers enslaved in the garment workshops of Delhi they told us how, despite plenty of good Indian law against slavery and child labour, when the workshop owners fail to pay bribes to the police, the police come, arrest the children and hold them hostage, stopping work, until the bribes are paid. In other parts of India Dalits enslaved in brick kilns or agricultural labour find it next to impossible to obtain legal remedy for the situations in which they find themselves.

In other parts of the world rule of law is much more explicitly undermined. In Qatar there is the “kafalah” system. This is a so-called sponsorship system that ties workers to their employers to such an extent that even in the most abusive employment relationships, up to and including forced labour, the workers cannot change jobs or even go home. It is this system that underpins the trafficking for forced labour of thousands of South Asian labourers for work on the infrastructure and venues for the soccer world cup in Qatar 2022.

Kafalah is a cynical system to facilitate medieval levels of exploitation up to and including slavery across the Gulf states.

It is also essentially the same system that the United Kingdom government has in place for migrant domestic workers. The UK system for domestic workers’ visas de facto legalises trafficking for forced domestic servitude. It does this by explicitly saying to migrant domestic workers that if they leave the employment of the person to whom their visa is tied, no matter how abusive that employer may be, they will be deported. That places in the hands of unscrupulous employers an enormously powerful threat to hold over the head of any vulnerable worker hoping to improve their own life and that of their family through hard work.

The refusal to apply basic protections of rule of law to some within a society is sometimes deliberate in order to obtain some aristocratic privilege over a group of people, such as was the case with the 19th Century US system of slavery, even when free labour and emancipation were more attractive economically. This remains the case with India’s caste-based apartheid today.

Sometimes the failure to provide basic rule of law protections are as a result of a mistake or oversight. Sometimes, as we are presently seeing with the British Government, it is as a result of ineptitude born of ignorance, ideology and xenophobia. In the UK, for example, if a person from the European Union presents themselves to the authorities as a potential survivor of trafficking then there is a greater than 80% chance they will be recognised as such. If they come from outside the European Union then there is less than a 20% chance they will be recognised as such. That sort of imbalance in decision making can only be the result of institutionalised discrimination, something fed by the media and political elites who should instead be sanctioning those who disgrace their offices by privileging their petty bigotries over their responsibilities under the law.

In the 21st century the issue of government response to slavery becomes much more vital as the political economy becomes increasingly globalised. With globalisation the capacity of states to regulate business, as envisioned by classical economics is increasingly limited because too few states recognise that this responsibility now requires extraterritorial legislation to ensure the legal accountability of trans-national corporations, and of individual business executives who are running those corporations. Such legislation is also a central requirement in the struggle against contemporary slavery, particularly as businesses extend their operations into countries with limited rule of law and high levels of corruption.

The history of the struggle against slavery, as with the rest of the struggle for human rights, and the rest of history, is sometimes a messy and fraught affair, filled with petty rivalries, personal jealousies and self-serving accounts. And because, given the nature of slavery, its history is quite a personal story. People are not enslaved by poverty or drugs or some impersonal force: human beings do this to other human beings.

The diversity of personal perspectives means that there is inevitably a diversity of historical narratives. This is accentuated in the history of the struggle against slavery by the fact that there is a plurality of historical slavery experiences just as there are a plurality of contemporary experiences: from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and that of the Americas, to the trafficking from East Africa to Asia, to the indigenous forms of slavery and slavery-like practices, such as serfdom, that were present in Europe and the rest of the world.

Thomas Clarkson

Thomas Clarkson

Memory can be a self-serving thing as can the official versions of history. So surveying the history of this struggle can be confusing. Alongside the immense, and immensely troubling, accounts of the experiences of people in slavery, there are also propagandistic accounts of the benefits of slavery for enslaved people. And, just considering the anti-slavery struggle, there were also inevitable clashes between the leading anti-slavery figures. This resulted in such unedifying spectacles as the efforts by the sons of William Wilberforce to try to write the monumental figures of Clarkson and Equiano out of history, or the efforts of Salmon Chase to organise a coup d’etat against Lincoln. Some historian’s even discern a dispute between Spartacus and Crixis at the height of the Gladiator War.

But, nevertheless, history and society critically interrogated can be a source of understanding and learning.

The former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau was once asked if anything could ever be said with certainty about the First World War given all the vast and bloody confusion that entailed. Yes, he said. “No one can ever say Belgium invaded Germany.”

Such hard facts may be rare enough in history, and indeed in any aspect of life, but it is important to try to find them because from them we can discern what worked, what didn’t work and why.

And, at least as importantly, the process of thinking critically about history, and of refusing to accept unthinkingly the propaganda of the powerful or the official versions of the winners, of considering carefully life and society, can provide a basis for developing our own citizenship and our capacity for action for justice.

I think there are a number of hard truths that than can be discerned from contemplation of the historical and contemporary struggles against slavery.

The first thing that emerges for me from consideration of the diversity of contemporary anti-slavery struggles is that there is not a single anti-slavery movement.

The memorial to Shaw and the 54th

The memorial to Shaw and the 54th

I was at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool a while ago and I saw a poster there commemorating the struggle against slavery and the transatlantic slave trade: it said “Remember not that we were enslaved, but that we fought“. It’s a truth stunningly emphasised in the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th on Boston Common.

And it remains the case today. However the activists who risk life and limb to end contemporary slavery across the globe know that few today beyond their own directly affected communities are remotely interested in trying to end these modern forms of slavery.

Unlike previous struggles against aspects of slavery or more recent struggles to end, for example, apartheid in South Africa, or to advance the peace process in the North of Ireland, the contemporary efforts of indigenous campaigners against slavery are very poorly supported by international efforts.

There is very limited discussion on how policy on migration, international aid, trade, or diplomacy should be shaped to support local anti-slavery activists. There is little discussion on how to reshape the international political economy away from one where unscrupulous political and business leaders are allowed to develop competitive advantage through their facilitation of, or use of, forced labour and slavery. The international silence is deafening on caste discrimination in South Asia, which imposes a system of apartheid on over 300 million people. This system not only undermines the very concepts of rule of law and democracy in South Asia but also provides the social exclusion vital to establish a population who can be enslaved with impunity.

This provides huge benefits to powerful vested interests across South Asia. But we in the Northern hemisphere also benefit. Slavery provides us cheap shrimp for the dinner plates of Europe and North America. So extensive still is the use of the forced labour of girls and young women in garment manufacture in southern India, not to mention the forced labour, including forced child labour, in cotton production in Uzbekistan and other parts of central Asia, that the probability is that every one of us in this room is wearing at least one garment that is tainted with contemporary slavery.

Just to give one illustration of what that means in human terms: In the course of a piece of research Anti-Slavery International, funded by Humanity United, conducted into the forced labour of girls and young women in the garment sector of the state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India we spoke to the mother of one young woman, 20 years old, about the same age as many of you, who worked in a cotton spinning mill there. She described visiting her daughter:

Barbed wire around the compound of a South Indian spinning mill

Barbed wire around the compound of a South Indian spinning mill

“I spoke to her in a room provided for visitors”, she said, “because visitors are not allowed to go inside the mill or hostel. My daughter told me that she was suffering with fever and vomiting often. …I met with the manager and requested him to give leave to my daughter because she was unwell. I told him that I would send my daughter back once she was better. But the manager refused saying that there was a shortage of workers therefore they cannot grant leave. He also assured me that they would take care of my daughter and asked me not to worry.”

A week later she received a call to say now she could collect her daughter. She was dead: a life over before it had barely been allowed to begin.

Just as enslaved people were worked to death on the plantations of the US South in the 19th Century so too are they today worked to death in the garment factories of Southern India, the fishing boats of Thailand, on the World Cup building sites of Qatar and the rest of the Gulf, in agricultural fields from West Africa to North America, and in the servants quarters of every major city of the world.

Thus has it always been.

A further point that emerges from consideration of historical and contemporary slavery is that there is no silver bullet to end slavery.

I think this is one of the key lessons of the history of the anti-slavery movement. When Anti-Slavery International’s antecedents in the Committee for the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was established in 1787 they believed that the ending of the slave trade would inevitably lead to the ending of slavery. It was certainly an important milestone but additional effort was necessary until chattel slavery was abolished in the British Empire. But even then slavery transmuted into different forms: bonded labour was still tolerated in British India and now in independent India and Pakistan. Indentured labour became a feature of British colonialism post-1839.

In the United States there was a similar approach to the eradication of slavery. Some believed that confining of slavery to the US South would ultimately lead to it naturally dying out there. But in the end a devastating war was necessary. And again slavery transmuted first into exploitation and then into a variety of new forms affecting vulnerable workers in the unpoliced parts of the economy.

In the present day in spite of slavery being illegal in most countries of the world there are a minimum of 21 million people in slavery and forced labour. Whatever magic bullets have been fired at the problem they have failed to stop it.

Instead we need to conceive of a much broader based approach to dealing with contemporary slavery: complex problems generally require sophisticated solutions. This is the case with slavery. It is a crime, but it needs more than a criminal justice approach to counteract. As I mentioned earlier the anti-slavery struggle, if it is to be successful, must become a centrepiece of diplomacy, and policy and practice related to migration, international aid and trade.

Such an approach must include a comprehensive programme of human, civil and economic rights for those most discriminated against and most vulnerable to slavery. This would offer a chance of peace and prosperity for them, their families and their countries rather than the continued violence of forced labour and poverty that describes their present, not to mention the risks to their futures.

The beginning of such a programme should be marked by a clear declaration by the United Nations that the eradication of slavery and child labour should be made stand-alone post-2015 sustainable development goals. This would help focus the minds of the thousands of anti-poverty and humanitarian professionals on considering how their particular expertise and professional responsibilities may contribute to the elimination of slavery. For those of you who take practical action against slavery perhaps consider writing to your president and to the Secretary General of the United Nations with this demand.

Leading on from this the struggle to end slavery should be a central feature of governmental aid programmes such as those of USAID and the other major multilateral and bilateral agencies across the world. This means establishing specific anti-slavery budget lines for countries and regions with the greatest prevalence of slavery, and mainstreaming consideration of slavery into other anti-poverty and humanitarian work. Without such consideration there is a significant risk that anti-poverty interventions either relatively or absolutely exacerbate the position of the most vulnerable groups in those communities.

For example in 2005 our colleagues in the Niger anti-slavery organisation TImidria identified that slaves were being used in some of the food for work programmes which had been set up in response to the West African famine of the time. The way this worked was that slave masters would send those they had enslaved to toil all day on the programmes and on their return they would confiscate the ration cards they had been given in payment for their work.

Now I don’t want to be glib about this. I worked in humanitarian response for many years and appreciate deeply what a difficult and vital role it is. Without exposure to the institutions of contemporary slavery I am sure I would have made a similar mistake, and indeed probably did in other parts of the world. My point is that a basic question that development and humanitarian professionals should ask is, “How can my work impact upon slavery and non-gender based discrimination in the area in which I am working?” Asking such questions can help mainstream anti-slavery practice to development and humanitarian work and lead to the sort of qualitative improvement in practice that gender mainstreaming brought two decades ago.

An appropriate international struggle against slavery should also include attention to the need for safe migration: we should not tolerate the establishment of rules on migration that facilitate the trafficking of vulnerable people. Countries that establish such rules, like Qatar, like the UK, should be treated as pariahs and the terms with which they trade with the rest of the world should be altered. There is an hypocrisy in how migrant workers are treated internationally. On one hand we, as an international community, tolerate circumstance of injustice and poverty which compel them to migrate. We will then go so far sometimes to recognise the importance of remittances from these workers towards the development of their countries and reducing the poverty of their families. But the world still fails to ensure safe migration. At the moment in Europe we are witnessing carnage off our southern shores because of a wholesale failure of political courage in addressing this issue.

Perhaps it is another hard lesson of history that when the moral courage of political leaders fails in the face of prejudice and vested interests it is the vulnerable who are usually the ones to pay in the bloody routine of violence that ensues.

200 years ago people like Equiano and Clarkson in Europe, and in the Americas, Sam Sharpe, Nat Turner, Touissant, the Maroons decided, for diverse reasons, to try to end slavery, so morally repugnant did they find it. In doing so they took on a system that the writer Adam Hochschild has compared in the equivalence of its power to the oil industry today. In ending the slave trade through force of arms and force of argument in a mere 20 years they showed what could be achieved when there is the collective will and the audacity of ambition to do so.

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano

Clarkson, Equiano, Turner and Sharpe, the Maroons, the Quakers, and the nascent trades unions have been substantially written out of the history of that struggle, first by Wilberforce’s sons, and largely forgotten subsequently. That historiographical injustice contributes not just to the misremembering of what happened, but the misunderstanding of why it happened. The achievements of 200 years ago were a classic example, in Bobby Kennedy’s phrase, of numberless diverse acts of courage and belief shaping the history of the time. Thus has it been, thus will it always be.

Whatever our differences one thing that unites us is that we are all citizens in this world. And that brings with it not just rights but responsibilities. We have the responsibility to remember properly. We have the responsibility to think and to understand. We have the responsibility to act. “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” And remember that when we act with common purpose, in spite of all our flaws and diverse motives, that still, together, we can overcome.

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