We must not forget the horrors of the slave trade and those still subject to modern day slavery
What started with a campaign to end the slave trade, has evolved into a global movement still fighting for freedoms.
Today is International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. From the 22 to 23 August 1791, an uprising began on the island of Saint Domingue (present day Haiti). A group of self-liberated slaves held an insurrection against their French, colonial rulers, which started in motion the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
The charity of which I am patron, Anti-Slavery International, is the oldest human rights organisation in the world, formed in 1839 by a group of abolitionists, including Thomas Clarkson and Thomas Fowell Buxton.
Businesses should go beyond simply complying with the Modern Slavery Act, but develop due diligence practices that actively prevent exploitation
In 1840, what was then called The Anti-Slavery Society convened the world’s first anti-slavery convention in London and by 1850, had developed “slave-free produce” consumer action groups, promoting alternatives to slave plantation sugar. In 1890, the organisation helped establish the Brussels Act, the first comprehensive anti-slavery treaty, which allowed the inspection of ships and the arrest of anyone transporting slaves. In the 20th Century, the organisation successfully campaigned against slavery practices perpetrated in the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium. Throughout the 1920s, the organisation helped end the indentured labour system in the British colonies after campaigning against the use of indentured Indian and Chinese labourers, then successfully lobbied for the League of Nations inquiry into slavery, which resulted in the 1926 Slavery Convention that obliged all ratifying states to end slavery.
Despite these victories, slavery is still very much an issue in society today. What started with a campaign to end the slave trade, has evolved into a global movement to abolish modern-day slavery.
Tragically, there are around 40.3 million people around the world in modern slavery today, a quarter of whom are children. Modern slavery is present in every part of our society, we unknowingly interact with it all the time. People are exploited in the services and products we use every day. Fishermen in Thailand are trapped in forced labour on boats, to provide the seafood that supplies our supermarkets and restaurants. Women and girls in bonded labour in Indian textile factories and Uyghurs persecuted by the Chinese government make our clothes and textiles. In the United Kingdom alone, 100,000-130,000 people are estimated to be in modern slavery.
Forced labour is fuelled by a drive for cheap products and services, with little regard for the people behind them. Globally, governments and businesses are failing to introduce the protections and systems needed to make sure workers do not suffer exploitation, and systems are not currently set up to support people who are experiencing exploitation. In the UK, cuts to public services hamper efforts to prevent exploitation, and limit resources to investigate trafficking cases.
Although there has been considerable progress, more still needs to be done to challenge our institutions to make sure people are protected from exploitation, and that everyone who experiences slavery can be sure of good support and protection. This includes businesses addressing slavery practices in global supply chains. Businesses’ prioritisation of profit over people has become a huge driver of modern slavery in the 21st century. Businesses should go beyond simply complying with the UK Modern Slavery Act, but develop due diligence practices that actively prevent exploitation in all parts of their supply chains. We need a new stronger overarching law that requires companies to continuously take meaningful action against all human rights abuses, including modern slavery and environmental harm.
We have come a long way in the last 230 years but we are living in unprecedented times and are facing some of the biggest challenges we have ever seen on a global scale. How to rebuild and live in a post-pandemic world, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and the ever-present threat of the climate crisis. All these issues have contributed to the displacement of millions of people worldwide, who are at further risk of exploitation and modern slavery. It has therefore never been more important to ensure that human rights are at the centre of conversations and strategies to tackle these ongoing crises.
Vanita Patel MBE is a patron of Anti-Slavery International.
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