William Wilberforce, by William Hague

Summary: an exceptionally fine and engrossing biography of a great humanitarian

In the sublimely brilliant film, The Ladykillers, the exquisite Katie Johnson’s character is called Mrs Wilberforce. In giving her that name the producers wanted to signal immediately to the audience that this little old lady represented the epitome of English decency and moral courage.

Her character’s namesake, William, is a rarity in British history: a hero who is celebrated not for their participation in conflict or colonialism, but for their role in a humanitarian campaign – the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Over the centuries the slave-trading European powers stoked wars in Africa and trafficked over 10 million human beings into brutal enslavement in the Americas, killing millions more along the way.

William Hague’s biography of this key parliamentary figure in the struggle against the slave trade is a richly detailed and elegantly written account of the man’s life. Along the way he makes some fascinating excursions into the wider history of the time, including 18th century parliamentary machinations, evangelical religious revivalism, and the dubious electoral politics of that era.

Hague is generous in his assessment of Thomas Clarkson, the towering anti-slavery campaigner, without whom Wilberforce’s parliamentary efforts would have come to nothing. Of course, Hague argues, without Wilberforce Clarkson’s campaigning would also likely have been fruitless. Instead he asserts the critical complementarity that these two brought as the cutting edge of a national movement brought into being by, more than anyone else, the Quakers.

Similar to Jenkin’s biography of Churchill, this book is enriched by Hague’s understanding of parliament and government gained over the course of his own senior political career. It is an exceptionally fine work of history and reminds the reader why the name Wilberforce remains such a resonant one.

Fragments of Afghanistan


Summary: old memories of a war, with no useful conclusion beyond despair

Afghanistan was in chaos when I worked there towards the end of 1994. The warlords were still squabbling over the spoils following the Soviet withdrawal. So, as usual in war, the civilian population were caught in the middle. 

MSF Holland, who I was working for at the time, had a base in Peshawar in Pakistan from which we operated into Jalalabad in Afghanistan. 

Peshawar was a strange city. A garrison town under the British it fulfilled a similar function for the Pakistani government. Beyond the city limits lay the North-West Frontier province, that lawless area which the British could never control. Neither could the Pakistani government. So it was declared “self-governing”. That meant no government in reality. 

The North-West Frontier province began in the Peshwar suburbs, beyond the official city limits. After this point, marked by an arch across the road, the nature of the roadside shops changed from ones selling food and clothes, to ones selling hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. 

As the road twisted up through the foothills of the Hindu Kush towards the Khyber Pass it passed a palace, believed locally to contain the residence and laboratory of one of the wealthiest heroin processors in the world. Efforts by Pakistan to close down this enterprise were, it was said, always frustrated by the armed tribesmen of the North-West Frontier who valued the revenue this man brought into the region, being a ready market for their poppies and those of their counterparts in Afghanistan.

The relative order of the Pakistan side of the Khyber gates, maintained by the club-armed Pakistani police and soldiers, was wholly absent on the Afghan side, where crowds of migrants, desperate to get across the border seethed awaiting for an opening when the occasional authorised vehicle passed. When this happened they would try to surge through only to be beaten back by the Pakistani border guards. 

I worked designing a piped water scheme for a camp of people who had fled Kabul as a result of the fighting. In the arid countryside between Jalalabad and the border with Pakistan a new city of tents and mud had grown up for a quarter of a million people, scorching hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. 

It was a land sown with dragons’ teeth. The countryside had been a battlefield for so long that occasionally kids trying to scavenge scrap metal would have lumps blown off them when they picked up some unexploded ordnance or discarded anti-personnel mine. 

In the evening there was little to do in Jalalabad other than play chess. One of the drivers was particularly good. In years gone by he had been good enough to be selected to play the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov in an exhibition match when he visited Afghanistan.

One night our warehouse in Jalalabad was robbed. We contacted the local authorities and the governor himself showed up to take charge of the investigation. This amounted to him ordering the warehouse guards arrested and beaten until they told the truth of who was responsible. The governor just naturally assumed that these young guards were involved somehow. Still, I don’t think the culprits were ever caught.

Once, in the Jalalabad bazaar to buy some fruit juice, I remember a young Afghan man, sporting bandoliers and carrying an AK 47 slung over his shoulder, screaming at me for reasons that I could not discern. Discretion always being the better part of valour, I tried to make myself scarce. But I noticed his green eyes dilated with drugs as I fled.

There was a shop in the bazaar we called the antique shop. It sold all manner of bric-a-brac. This included buttons cut from the uniforms of British and Soviet soldiers who had died at the hands of Afghan guerrillas during 19th and 20th Century imperial adventures, and whose graves lay still in the mountains around us. I imagined that if you went deep enough into that bazaar there might be a shop where the lamps burned darkness and, for the price of your soul, even a flying carpet could be yours to possess. 

Around this time we first heard the stirrings of the Taliban. I don’t know where I first heard the suggestion, whether it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that this might be a good thing. At least they were a national movement, it was said, who might finally end the years of factional and ethnic conflict in the country. Certainly uniting in the face of a common enemy would be one way of obtaining national unity. Unfortunately women and girls seemed to be the ones who would obtain that unfortunate designation of “common enemy”. 

Not that it was a feminist halcyon up to that. One Afghan engineer I worked with was nervously hoping that his pregnant wife would give birth to a son. If she didn’t his mother and sisters were already pressuring him to take another wife who would produce a boy.

***

Years later, on a beach outside the port of Massawa in Eritrea, I fell into a fragmented conversation with a small group of Russian sailors in port for a couple of days. One of them, the one who spoke the most English pointed to the eldest of the group. “He is an Afghanski”, I was told, a veteran of the Afghan war.

“What parts of Afghanistan did he serve in?” I asked. 

From the litany he repeated one name stuck out: Jalalabad. “What did you do there?” I asked.

“You know the power plant in Jalalabad?” he asked, via our translator. 

“There was no power plant.” I said. “It had been blown up.”

“Yes,” the Afghanski said. “I blew it up.”

Justice’s scales: Civil Liberties and the Covid

Summary: In a pandemic some rights are more equal than others

John Rawls, in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, argued that a key principle for a fair society is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberties for all.”

In other words, no one is an island. The rights that each of us have can impinge on those of others. So rights need to be calibrated accordingly. Priti Patel may not grasp this most basic fact of social living and instead feel that freedom means that racists should be allowed to abuse anti-racist protesters if their prejudices so incline them. But then she is a complete moron desperate to be accepted by the Blackshirted establishment she seeks to serve.

So, as all but the most deliberately obtuse understand, the inter-relationships of people in society means that we have not only rights but responsibilities towards each other.

Which brings us to the questions of measures to control the Covid. It’s not wrong to conduct this debate in the context of civil liberties. But it is nonsensical to proceed as if all rights are equal and absolute. No one has an absolute right to do as they please irrespective of how passionately they feel about their particular hobby horse. The sociopath may feel he should be allowed to drink and drive at whatever speed he likes, ignoring traffic lights if they inconvenience him. But the rest of us whose lives he would threaten would likely object. The right to life supersedes other rights after all.

So, in the context of the Covid the proper debate should relate to which liberties may of necessity be temporarily restricted in order to protect that paramount right to life.

The requirement to wear masks in restricted spaces is so trivial an inconvenience that it beggars belief that it should become a matter of dispute. But it has been allowed to become so. The question of vaccine “passports” seems set to follow a similar path.

As anyone who has ever travelled in the Tropics will know vaccine “passports” are already a fact of life: there are many places you simply cannot go without your Yellow Fever certificate. Proof of Covid vaccination is now a fact of travel within Europe. In parts of mainland Europe health inspectors will check that diners in indoor venues have proof of Covid vaccination. Democratic norms are still much healthier there than in the UK which seems to have gotten into a ridiculous debate that such measures would impinge on the most basic of rights of Little England and its Brexiters.

As anyone who has ever led in a public health emergency will know, such a task requires hard choices and pragmatism.The decisions that may be necessary do not represent unalterable precedents. But they do represent fundamental responsibilities to preserve life where possible and ensure that others live another day.

As British politics becomes increasingly infantile, losing sight of this principle in a welter of doctrinal disputation relating to some nirvana of individual liberties will lead to the country becoming an even greater international laughing stock than it already is. But whatever grim mirth may be prompted by a UK refusal in the name of “civil liberties” to apply essential public health measures to stem a pandemic, this will never salve the grieving of those who have had to bury the needlessly dead.

Caste: the lies that divide us, by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: an elegantly written exploration of the poison at the heart of the American nightmare

“The townspeople of the East Texas village of Leesburg hammered a buggy axle into the ground to serve as a stake. Then they chained 19 year old Wylie McNeely to it. They collected the kindling they would use for the fire at the base of his feet, despite his protestations of innocence in connection to the white girl they said he had assaulted. Five hundred people gathered that fall in 1921 to see Wylie McNeely burn to death in front of them.”

Violence has long been at the heart of American society. It was intrinsic to slavery and it is intrinsic to maintaining the systems of preference and privilege that persist in America. With her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson focuses with impressive clarity on this violence and how it manifests in small ways and large to maintain the system of prejudice and discrimination that still afflicts the United States.

Following the Civil War the lynchings of innocent black people, such as that of Wylie McNeely that Wilkerson describes in such depressing and horrifying detail, became routine to remind black people that whatever the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution said, they still had to know their place. The contemporary police killings of black people serve the same purpose. It is also why so many Americans voted for a corrupt and imbecilic white supremacist to be their president.

As it did for Martin Luther King, the introduction to the South Asia concept of caste helps clarify for Wilkerson the nature of the United States’ own hierarchical system. But, unfortunately, this book provides only a limited discussion on the plight of Dalits – the Untouchables – and Adavasi – tribal peoples – in South Asia where they continue to struggle against ongoing enslavement, and routinized violence comparable to the worst excesses of the United States.

Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honour, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in” a hierarchy. She identifies Nazi Germany, contemporary India and the United States as the principal exemplars of caste societies. Indeed, the Nazis drew on the US South’s segregation laws as inspiration for their own anti-Semitic laws, though they did initially find some of the American laws too extreme.

Wilkerson draws some hope from the fact that casteism has been dismantled in German society. However its persistence in both South Asia and the US shows just what a pernicious and destructive idea it still is. But to have any hope of combatting it, it is first necessary to see it clearly, and this is what Wilkerson does in relation to the practice of caste in her own country

Perhaps having diagnosed with such clarity this sickness at the heart of US society, some US legislators may follow the advice of “the Martin Luther King of India”, BR Ambedkar, and propose new laws to help heal a body politic diseased with ignorance and hatred.

How to fight inequality (and why that fight needs you), by Ben Phillips

Summary: You’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself!

In 2014, a study partly funded by NASA found that the competition for resources and the stratification of society into “elites” and “masses” were key factors in the collapse of civilisations. Essentially, by the time the existential threat to a civilisation began to encroach upon the day-to-day lives of the “elites” to such an extent that they were inclined to do something about it, it was already too late.

Put another way, inequality in itself poses an existential threat to civilisation.

But it’s unquestionably nice for the elites while it lasts. All them private jets and champagne and cocaine quaffed from the bum cracks of super models. Who would ever want to give that up for the mere prospect of human rights for poor people and sustained life for future generations. Better to keep venial charlatans like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in power than risk paying more equitable rates of tax or submit to more effective environmental legislation.

Ben Phillips suggests, however, that we should not go meekly into the dark night that the super rich would like for us. Indeed, he points out that if the moral arc of the history has bent towards justice, it is because millions of ordinary people have twisted it in that direction in “numberless diverse acts of courage and belief”, as Bobby Kennedy observed.

His book then is a manifesto for the “uppity”, the people who don’t know their place, the people who, like Angela Davis, have had enough with accepting the things they cannot change and have gotten down to changing the things they cannot accept.

It is a vital book, not least for one critical point that Phillips makes repeatedly: if you seek change but do not risk causing the displeasure of the powerful, then you are unlikely to ever obtain the change you seek. Change is achieved by unsettling the status quo and making life uncomfortable for those in charge. Indeed, even the most progressive of politicians need this sort of upward pressure to obtain for them political space for manoeuvre and the impetus to compel them in the right direction. Lincoln, for example, would not have achieved what he did without the agitation of the anti-slavery societies and the courage of the black regiments of the Union army.

This is a point that has been forgotten by many working in movements mandated for social change. Some church leaders, for example, forget that Jesus said, “I bring not peace but the sword,” as they hobnob over sherry with the very government ministers whose policies lead to the enslavement of their own congregants. Some charities so want the favour of government that they formally collaborate with them on the systematic abuse of the human rights of vulnerable people.

If the only thing Phillips did with this book was to elucidate the fundamental importance of the courage to be unpopular in obtaining social change, then this book would be worthwhile. But “How to Fight Inequality” is richer still, with examples on how social change has been achieved, how it has been undermined, and the importance of organisation and patience in achieving change. As a leadership mentor of my own once said to me, “You must always be able to show that your intent to endure exceeds their capacity to resist.

How to Fight Inequality” is a mighty book. It is, in itself, an act against inequality and injustice and one that will hopefully inspire and aid numberless, diverse others to endure in their fight for justice as they themselves inspire others and unsettle the greedy and complacent who threaten the very future of our planet.

Guest blog: Still collateral? Trafficking survivors lack basic human rights protections, by Klara Skrivankova

Summary: In spite of the self congratulations by politicians regarding their stance on slavery, muddled government policies on trafficking, migration and labour rights render those vulnerable to slavery at continuing risk of abuse and exploitation.

October is usually a month filled with noise on “modern” slavery. It has been thus for over a decade now. Since 2007, 18th October has been designated the EU Anti-Trafficking Day and in 2010 the made it its UK Anti-Slavery Day. Organisations that work on the issue throughout the year tend to use the day to highlight campaigns, while politicians usually search for a photo op.  In 2020 photo ops are not really possible as events are largely held online.

Klara Skrivankova

As, in Europe at least, we are not busy flying from conference to a conference this October 2020 should be a reminder that the international community has been trying to deal with the issue for a long time. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the ILO Forced Labour Convention; 20 years since the UN “Palermo Protocol”, 15 years since the Council of Europe Trafficking Convention, and six years since the ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol. Importantly, it has also been 70 years since the European Convention on Human Rights was first introduced, prohibiting forced labour and slavery.

When I first started working on trafficking 20 years ago, convincing governments that trafficking exists was a challenge. Later the task was to persuade them that trafficking for forced labour was an issue. Today, the level of awareness and the number of people that work on the issue are unprecedented, at least since the heights of the anti-slavery struggle in the 19th Century. Dedicated funds exist, as do masters courses. Trafficking and modern slavery are for all intents and purposes talked about as serious problems of our times. Some could see this as the ultimate success of campaigns and advocacy of 1990’s and 00’s.

Yet, we are far from being able to declare success.

Human trafficking and people smuggling are still confused and used as interchangeable terms by media and politicians, reflecting muddled and often contradictory policy on these matters. This is despite that the above mentioned two “Palermo Protocols” distinguishes between trafficking – the rendering someone into a situation of exploitation and a crime against a person, and smuggling – the facilitation of clandestine crossing of international borders and a crime against the state.

With the exception of a few specialist journalists, such as Kieran Guilbert and dedicated projects like the ones by the Guardian and Thompson Reuters Foundation, much of the reporting on human trafficking remains flat and simplistic.

For the most part, policies designed to deal with modern slavery fail to engage with the difficult questions about underlying causes that are deeply embedded in our political economies. Civil society is increasingly rendered into the role of a service provider, gagged through government contract and prevented from acting as critical friend holding government to account.  There is a dearth intersectional analysis examining how policies and actions by governments and sometimes also NGOs perpetuate the very circumstances that lead to exploitation.

Collateral Damage  was the title of a report published in 2007 by the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. The publication reflected on the previous decade of anti-trafficking efforts and how these impacted on the rights of trafficked women. The title was chosen as it summed up well what we found – that peoples’ rights were often the casualty of anti-trafficking efforts.

Collateral damage is felt by trafficked people. For many, getting out of a situation of exploitation does not lead to “freedom”, but to a different kind of unfreedom. A trajectory from being enslaved to being processed by authorities, detained, disbelieved, deported, faced with destitution, debt and an uphill struggle to show that they are deserving victims.

Since 2007, laws have changed and arguably there have been some improvements in the way countries and civil society organisations respond. Trafficking for forced labour is now a strong focus and businesses are a key stakeholder in anti-slavery efforts. Yet I am struck that the overall argument of that report still stands and systemic failures described in it remain.

Let’s look at the UK for example. In 2007 I wrote in a chapter examining the UK’s response: “…. the authorities seemed to have failed to assess the implications that migration and labour market polices have for trafficking and on the vulnerability of certain groups to being trafficked.”

This statement rings true in 2020. In fact, I would argue that the implications of those policies are likely to be more significant today that they were in 2007.

Hostile environment has been a flagship UK policy for almost a decade now. The policy was designed to make the UK unwelcoming to migrants who do not have regular status in the country. Consequently, anyone who cannot immediately show their right to be here should be viewed with suspicion. Anti-migrant rhetoric and government campaigns such as the infamous go-home vans and vilification of lawyers have led to irregular migrants being labelled as criminals.  At the same time, most victims of modern slavery in the UK are migrants. The Home Office is the department in charge of both policies – one that is designed to remove as many foreigners as swiftly as possible, and the modern slavery strategy that is meant to provide victims with a recovery and reflection period, including a temporary permission to stay in the UK. The conflict between these two policies is glaring. Nevertheless, one would search in vain to find a recognition by the government that this contradiction exists. A new report by ECPAT UK shows what this policy dissonance means – life of insecurity and possible removals experienced by thousands of child victims of trafficking.

Labour exploitation too is, to a large extent, enabled by government policy. Deregulation, promoting ultra-flexible labour market and cuts in budgets of inspection bodies have led to increasing precarity in the UK labour market. Vast swathes of workers on zero-hour contracts, subcontracted through chains of labour brokers face uncertainty, poverty wages, poor conditions and in some cases forced labour. Flexibility and complexity in the labour market, where the rights of workers are secondary to the constant growth agenda, bring about situations where forced labour is found in value chains of well know companies.

Then there is the intersection between the labour market policies and immigration policies such as the criminal offence of illegal working. The impact of the new post-Brexit UK immigration tier system, to be introduced in 2021, is yet to seen. COVID19 has not only shone the light on underlying issues of inequality, but is expected to lead to more insecurity and precarity.

Back in 2007 the Collateral Damage report caused a bit of a stir. Rereading it today, I think it is time for volume two as the rights of migrants and rights of workers are under renewed assault, to serve as a reminder what governments and broader international community ought to do to seriously take on the issue of “modern” slavery.

East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity, by Philippe Sands

Summary: an lucid and important exploration of the personal consequences of atrocity, and the origins of international human rights law.

East West Street is something of a hybrid of a book. It is part family memoir: Sands’ maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust, but never spoke about their experiences. And while loving people, they never smiled much, something that becomes more understandable as their biographies are painstakingly revealed.

In part the book is a history of the philosophy of international law. The book is also a joint biography of the originators of key concepts of human rights: Rafael Lemkin postulated the idea of “genocide” – the destruction of groups of people based on their identity; Hersch Lauterpacht formulated the idea of “crimes against humanity” – atrocities against individual civilians, often by their own governments.

What binds all this into a remarkable whole is the strange coincidence that, like Sands’ grandfather, Lemkin and Lauterpacht had deep ties with the city of Lviv, currently in Ukraine, previously known as Lemberg when it was in the Hapsburg empire. It was there that Lemkin and Lauterpacht originally studied law, and may well have come to know each other, though they do not seem ever to have become friends. Lemkin was a solitary and spiky soul. Lauterpacht had deep concerns that the concept of genocide would drive human beings deeper into their group identities and hence perpetuate the roots of genocide, if not its actual manifestation.

Nevertheless, both “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are now important concepts in international human rights law. However, it was a struggle to get them accepted at Nuremberg. The US and the UK did not like the idea of genocide having been formidable practitioners of it themselves in the past. The Soviets, whose own campaign in the East had been marked with atrocity, including mass rape during the conquest of Berlin, did not like the concept of “crimes against humanity.” Nevertheless, Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s advocacy, and the interventions of Robert Jackson the chief US prosecutor, and Hartley Shawcross, the British Attorney General, eventually got them included.

The book builds considerable momentum towards its climax at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. Here the personal, political and legal strands of the book are drawn together into what must be the most important courtroom drama in history. Sands focusses particularly on the case of Hans Frank in this trial. Himself a lawyer, as Governor General of Nazi occupied territories in Poland, Frank was ultimately responsible for the murders of many of Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s families, as well as members of Sands’ own family. 

In the course of writing this lucid and important book Sands became friends with Frank’s son, Niklas. Together in the courtroom where his father was sentenced to death, Niklas described it as a “happy place.” Later Niklas explained further that he was against the death penalty, but not for his own father. 

East West Street is a mighty book.

The Outlaw Ocean, by Ian Urbina

Summary: an impressive work of investigative journalism detailing the vast scale of human rights abuses and environmental damage in the world’s oceans.

The Outlaw Ocean is based on a celebrated series of articles that Ian Urbina wrote for the New York Times on the struggles for human rights and environmental standards in the vast lawless expanses of the world’s seas.

It is an impressive achievement, but also a deeply depressing one. As well as the continuing butchery of the planet’s whales, Urbina catalogues the environmental devastation of bottom trawling, the damage caused by the oil and gas industries, the risks arising from the destruction, “bleaching”, of the world’s corals, and the routine and brutal enslavement of seafarers, particularly fishermen, on the world’s ships and boats.

There are some heartening descriptions of the work of activists, such as those of Stella Maris or Sea Shepherd, who strive to bring some measure of humanity to this brutal realm, and there are exciting descriptions of some of their operations. But, appositely enough, all these seem like drops in the ocean such is the scale of the both environmental and human rights challenges.

Urbina shows how the abuses at sea are perhaps the most extreme example in history of the “tragedy of the commons” – the idea that when, in effect, everyone is responsible for something then no one actually takes responsibility. International maritime law, such as it exists, empowers states with its enforcement. This means that on the high seas – beyond territorial waters – a vessel flagged to a particular country can only be boarded by a war ship of that country. So the vast majority of the ships are simply never inspected at all. A land locked country like Mongolia, to which many ships are registered under flags of convenience, does not even have a navy.

Much maritime law, such as the 2006 international convention, does not apply to fishing vessels anyway which can do so much environmental damage through overfishing and other devastating fishing practices. Consequently slavery is also endemic on these vessels, most notoriously on the high seas of South East Asia. But I have also encountered it in the territorial waters of Myanmar and Ireland due to poor regulation and inadequate inspection.

Those who are enslaved are generally migrants, so desperately poor that they are driven to seek work from unscrupulous labour brokers. Urbina describes how sharp practices amongst labour brokers lead to seafarers becoming debt bonded, a form of slavery recognised in international law. Once this has happened the boat captains who receive them as crew routinely use physical violence, including murder, to keep discipline.

Urbina’s impressive work shows how the roots of enslavement on the sea lie on land in the indebtedness of the families and communities from which seafarers originate. This is something I also found in 2019 when researching the enslavement of raft fishermen in Myanmar’s Gulf of Motama. Hence it is a logical extension of Urbina’s research that prevention of slavery requires focussed attention on eliminating the debt that is the key mechanism for so much contemporary slavery.

Such is the scale of “modern” slavery, currently estimated as affecting over 40 million people globally, that meaningful action to reduce these numbers would require a response of comparable imaginative and actual scale to the Marshall Plan. Such a plan should focus on creation in slavery vulnerable communities of decent work, and direct cash transfers to secure early child development and school attendance. A crackdown on usurious money lenders and unscrupulous labour brokers would also be a welcome thing.

Until that happens Urbina’s work will stand as an appalling indictment of the human rights and environmental carnage at sea that the world is collectively turning a blind eye to.

Responding to child labour in Nespresso’s supply chain

Originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News

No one who has ever dealt with the challenges of agricultural livelihoods in the global South should ever be surprised that child labour remains an issue. However a report that Channel 4’s Despatches programme has filmed children picking coffee beans and hauling sacks on six Guatemalan farms believed to supply Nespressogives a shocking glimpse of the cynicism with which some businesses seem to treat this issue.

In responding to the reports Guillaume Le Cunff, Nespresso’s CEO, stated that “Nespresso
has a zero tolerance of child labour”, and the company noted over the past four years only 15 child labour cases had been identified by third-party auditors in Nespresso’s supply chains. All had been “effectively resolved” according to the business.

However, Mr Le Cunff also mentioned that coffee suppliers are given “a day or two days”
advanced notice before spot checks take place. With practices like that, one can only
imagine  Mr Le Cunff’s shock – SHOCK! – to discover there is child labour in his supply chain.

To be fair, audits are used by many big companies to give a façade of transparency rather than actually putting in the hard work that is necessary to more effectively tackle the issue. However, even with the best will in the world, audits are a poor instrument for resolution of child labour.

Unlike child slavery, which is the trafficking of children to a third party for the purposes of exploitation, child labour tends to occur within the family context. In other words, those who practice child labour are often the child’s own parents who are often trying to do their best for their kids in horrendously difficult circumstances.

That their best intentions for their child result in child labour is a consequence of poverty. It is a consequence of the poverty of families who put their children into the fields because they may not have enough money to eat let alone send their kids to school. It is a consequence of the poverty of communities which may not even have schools or, where there are buildings, may not have qualified teachers to staff them.

Audits by their very nature do not address these underlying causes of child labour. As
Nespresso appears to practice them they just make sure that labouring children are not
there to be seen when the inspectors show up with their note pads for fear it puts
consumers off their coffee.

Even where businesses pay premiums to suppliers for the commodities that they purchase, as Nespresso appears to do, this is often insufficient to end child labour in communities: landless labourers will never benefit from premiums; and families with only small parcels of land still may not earn enough from such payments to obtain a living income.

Hence, it would, paradoxically, be a pity if these reports of Nespresso’s failings put people
off buying their coffee. If businesses stop trading with poor communities they will be
impoverished further. Instead of boycotting Nespresso consumers should demand better of it and, as George Clooney, Nespresso’s public face for many years, said “hold everyone’s promise to account.”

So what does “doing better” look like? First it requires that businesses recognise that, like
any human rights or poverty challenge, child labour is a political issue. That is, it relates to the allocations of power and resources within communities and within wider societies. So if businesses want to address child labour in a meaningful way then they must engage with those issues.

Specifically, they need to act to advance gender equity, economic diversification, and child rights within the communities from which they source ensuring that the distinctive
challenges of the landless and, in particular, girls are directly addressed. Current models of trade and audits simply do not tackle these aspects of poverty. Instead there must be
specific focus on women’s political and economic empowerment in communities, establishing effective cultures of child protection, and ensuring that the landless have a
proper stake in the local economy.

Businesses must also work to ensure good governance, both nationally and locally in the
countries with which they do business. For example, businesses pay significant amounts in tax to the countries from which they source their commodities. It is reasonable for them to ask if national governments are using that revenue to effectively reduce poverty in the communities from which they source: Are they providing student grants for needy children? Or do all the schools have enough books and desks?

In spite of the complexities progress is being made. The number of children in child labour fell by 16 million from 168 million to 152 million between 2012 and 2016. Further progress depends on businesses like Nespresso properly engaging with the issue and its underlying causes.

As such Dispatches provides a moment of truth for the business. We all await to see if they rise to the challenge or merely tinker with their public relations.

We shall always overcome: speech to Rally For Our Rights, London, 12 Oct 2019

A couple of weeks ago I was back in Ireland visiting my family in the very place that Boris Johnson wants to reimpose a hard border.

It was a time for remembering and we remembered the dead: the dozens of people, British and Irish, who had died violently mere hundreds of metres from where we met.

There is peace now. It’s a peace that was forged by peaceful protest, by force of argument, by the spilling of sweat not blood. It’s a peace that has European foundations. Britain and Ireland’s common EU membership allowed different identities to be accommodated and old quarrels to be recast. From that new alliances and friendships have formed: before the 2016 referendum Ireland and Britain were the closest allies in the EU.

How things have changed. Now the uppity Irish are the bogey men and women of Brexit, disgracing ourselves in Brexiter eyes by our insistence that our peace is more important than their fantasies of reclaimed imperial glory.

But Boris Johnson and the imbecilic charlatans that form his government have forgotten something. They have forgotten that Britain is not just a land of Empire nostalgists and currency speculators. Like every country it may have a few racists and Blackshirts.

But Britain is also the land of the anti-slavery movement and the first trades unions. It is the land of the suffragettes and campaigns to make poverty history. In other words, this is a country filled with uppity citizens, people who believe in justice and fair play no matter what they are told by those who seek to profit from lies.

Following the corrupted referendum of 2016 the political leaderships of this country, Left and Right, wanted us to go quietly into the darkness. They wanted us to surrender to a far-Right clique the progress that had been made in peace, democracy, human rights, and environmental protections as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. And they gave us comforting myths to help us on our way: garbage about a “jobs first” Brexit from the Left; nonsense about the Dunkirk spirit from the Right.

But we have not gone quietly. Instead a movement was born of ordinary people showing what Bobby Kennedy called numberless diverse acts of courage and belief and so reshaping the history of these times.

This movement is an expression of that collective sense of outrage that drove the anti-slavery movement and the suffragettes, and that drives still the demands for justice for Grenfell, the Windrush generation and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is the same sense of outrage that drives every struggle for social justice and human rights across the world.

Each of us here today is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently accept the stripping away of the rights of young people to live and study and work and love across Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to silently allow the denial of the rights of our friends and neighbours to contribute to the flourishing of this society simply because they come from a different part of Europe.

Each of us is saying with our presence that we are not prepared to allow the peace forged at great effort in Ireland to be jeopardised through the racist blundering of the buffoons who currently occupy Downing Street: people who for all their crass talk of world wars have never seen the effect of a bullet or a bomb on a human body, or the devastation that a battle can inflict upon a community or a war upon a society.

The spirit of British decency is alive on these streets today. It has forced the political leadership of this country to accept that Brexit is not a done deal. We have shown them all, from Boris Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn, something they should never have forgotten. That when citizens are outraged, united by our common humanity and repudiating the hatred and racism of the bigots around us, then no matter what injustice we may be confronted with, we will always overcome.