Vatican City, 18 Mar 2016
The first thing we must recognise is that slavery is a profoundly political issue: it is about power and exclusion from power. Consequently anti-slavery work must, by its very nature, be contentious.
Slavery is sometimes a result of the cataclysm of war. We see that in the tragic histories of Sudan, Syria and Nigeria. But slavery also exists because of the way we have chosen to establish national and international laws, policies and customs relating to development, employment, trade and business. It is in the opportunities provided by these systems that slavery flourishes.
For example child labour and child slavery, including early marriage, are a global affliction because we have failed as a human society to establish a decent system of education. There are too few schools, and where there are schools, amongst other failings, the curriculum is often poor, ignoring girls needs, and with no provision for decent vocational and entrepreneurial education.
Alternatively in South Asia there is such limited rule of law that factory owners can with impunity enslave girls and young women to produce the very garments that many of us are wearing this morning.
The Qatar 2022 World Cup is being prepared by forced labour. Across the entire Arabian peninsula domestic workers are routinely enslaved. At the root of these systems of slavery is the Kafala system. This provides a legal prohibition on workers escaping even the most abusive of employment relationships.
It is a cynical system to legally facilitate medieval levels of exploitation and enslavement.
It is also essentially the same system that the UK government has in place for overseas domestic workers. The reforms that that government is currently proposing are cosmetic. They will do little to alter this de facto legalisation of trafficking for domestic servitude of many who are mothers sacrificing their lives and freedom in the hope of a better life for their children.
Jesus said, “I bring not peace but the sword”, because no system of injustice has ever been ended without conflict, and perhaps the greatest sin in the face of injustice is silence. Thus will it be with slavery. It will entail confrontation with those who selfishly guard the rules and resources that underpin it.
Towards this end we must renew the struggle to obtain decent education for all, particularly girls, particularly Dalits and Adavasi, and the children of refugees and migrants.
We must loudly and publicly repudiate the sin of caste based apartheid which scars not only Hinduism, but also Islam and Christianity and underpins slavery in South Asia.
Business must stand with civil society to repudiate law and policy that eliminates the most basic protections for vulnerable workers and increases their risks of enslavement.
President Obama’s recent move to empower public officials to exclude slavery tainted goods from the US market is a significant one. It represents an extension of the rule of human rights law into the realm of international trade. As a result it threatens consequences to those that have tolerated, or worse, facilitated, slavery as a foundational element in their economic policies.
Europe should follow suit and put in place similar powers. Again this is something which ethical business leaders should demand if they truly want to prove themselves against slavery.
It is important for government, business and civil society to work together against slavery. But, paradoxically, if that work is not painful and thankless it will probably be worthless. We must seek empowerment for those enslaved, not mere superficial changes to unjust systems. But, if we have the courage to grasp that challenge, we may also transform a moment of history for vulnerable people across the world.