‘Slave labour’ is a phrase that is nowadays thrown around loosely. Whilst once reserved only for one of the most abhorrent long running practices in the history of our species, in modern times it has been coined to mean participation in any task seen to be overly arduous or tedious for the monetary benefit that it yields. Everything from working at a supermarket checkout to washing one’s parents’ car, or even marriage, as one mildly humorous contributor on urbandictionary.com suggested, is labeled as slavery. Whilst for most of us, our lighthearted usage of the word appreciates that such examples are in reality a far cry from the true atrocities that are associated with it, we perhaps use it out of an underlying belief that it is socially acceptable to do so because true slavery is a thing of the past. This is a belief that, sadly, is incorrect.
In early September this year, a coalition of police and officers from the UK human trafficking centre raided Greenacre’s travellers’ site in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. It was soon revealed that there were in fact twenty four men of English and Eastern European descent, ranging from 17 to 57 years old, being held there in cramped and squalid conditions, forced to work against their will. The appalling details included the fact that some of the victims were made to live in sheds, horse boxes, and dog kennels, with many of them exhibiting signs of poor health. It is thought that the men were recruited from job centres and soup kitchens and were lured to the site on the assurance of good pay, food and lodgings, but upon arrival were instead forced to work long hours with no pay, and were met with the threat of violence if they dared try to leave.
The collective media’s reaction was a virtually unanimous one of shock, horror and disbelief, though perhaps it should not have been so. It has been estimated that there are at least 27 million slaves in the world today (with that number increasing five-fold if the definition is extended to include, for example, victims of forced marriages), the highest it has been at any given point in human history. Case studies such as that of Greenacre’s serve to remind us that slavery isn’t all shackles and plantations in the deep south of the US in days gone by. The horrors of chattel slavery and their associated images of bound Africans being whipped whilst rowing the boats to the Americas are so deeply embedded in our collective psyches (and rightly so) that sometimes we fail to remember that although the practice was officially abolished some decades ago, and is nowadays often seen as something endemic to the “third world”, it prevails today in almost every city in the world.
Perhaps the most common form of slavery found on our own island is sex slavery, masquerading as voluntary prostitution. It’s all too convenient to dismiss large swathes of street workers as sexual miscreants, who choose to sell their bodies to feed drug habits or who take the easy way-out in order to pay their bills. The reality, however, can be somewhat different. For example, highly sophisticated, albeit highly fake, agencies are often set up in Eastern Europe to entice adolescents into signing up for exciting educational or employment opportunities abroad. Once the eager ’employees’ have arrived at their destination, they’re often beaten, raped and confined to brothels, their new place of work. Being alone in a foreign country where the victims may not even speak the local language coupled with the fact that their owners, or pimps, guard their human ‘property’ around the clock, means that there’s little opportunity for sex slaves to seek help or escape. Aside from the fact that most victims of sex trafficking don’t have a highly skilled ex-CIA operative like Liam Neeson for a father, Pierre Morell’s 2008 motion picture ‘Taken’ in fact gives you a pretty accurate insight.
It is worth noting that Europe is by no means the only continent plagued by this disgusting practice. Debt bonded labour, one of the most lucrative and hence most common forms of enslavement, is rife in South East Asia. The poor and destitute get caught up in the nightmare by using themselves as collateral against loans, often taken from wealthy landowners. Whilst the debt is supposedly being paid off, further costs (food, shelter, etc.) tend to accrue and the bonded tend to find themselves in a situation where their debts have piled so high that they, and more often that not, their descendants are bound to a life of servitude, even though the value of their work almost always far outweighs that of the original loan.
Another heinous strain of the moral disease that plagues people into believing that they have ownership over another individual manifests itself in the form of warlords that kidnap children to form their armies. The practice can be epitomised in the example of Sierra Leone, during the civil war. It is thought that some twenty five thousand children, some as young as 8 years old, were forced into joining armed forces. Their training included anything from being beaten, tortured and pumped with mind-altering hallucinogens to being forced to eat human flesh and in some cases murder their own family members and friends. Understandably, the result of such trauma often means that even if they ever manage to escape, and their physical wounds heal, the mental scars these children have often prevent them from leading anything akin to a normal and fulfilling life.
In short, the ideology that it is acceptable to place oneself above another human being and devalue the latter’s status to that of disposable property pervades all continents and cultures. Though I have outlined some of the more common types of slavery, I’ll admit that I have thus far failed to provide any solutions. In part this is because a quick Google search will present you with a long list of governments and NGOs that work tirelessly to do just that. However, the only way that slavery can truly be prevented from becoming part of our future is when we all truly believe in and propagate the notion that we are all equal and deserve to be treated as such.