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02 January 2014

Slavery unfinished business

Slavery unfinished business

" Ultimately we want to put ourselves out of business.We do not want to be here, we don't want to be in this business. In 20 years' time why don't we gather back here and say slavery is over, it's done and dusted."

That's the goal of Andrew Wallis, CEO of Unseen, which in November won a prestigious award from the Centre for Social Justice for the organisation's work tackling slavery.

The slave trade was banned in 1807, abolished across the British Empire in 1834 and yet is still with us today. There are men, women and children taken against their will both across borders and within countries and forced to work, made to fight and sexually abused. It might not be justified as an essential part of an economic strategy, or premised on racial superiority. But slavery goes on. Across the world there are somewhere between 21 and 30 million slaves in the world today.

Children are sold into slavery to pay family debts, people pay for passage over borders only to find not freedom but forced labour of many horrific forms. Across the world children are forced to fight, men and women are forced to work under inhumane conditions and sexual abuse is a weapon of repression. In India alone it is estimated there are nearly 14 million slaves, with China, Pakistan and Nigeria also contributing a high proportion of the global number. In Mauritania four per cent of the population are in slavery. However, the UK is not immune. There are probably between 4,200 and 4,600 people in slavery in the UK, this is a global problem but it is also one on our doorstep. 

The numbers are inevitably estimates; no global record is kept when someone's life is traded. When something is wrong you ban it. But when it continues you can't ban it again. The modern abolitionists have to be smarter, because there is no regulatory regime to monitor, or processes to ensure maintained. It inevitably happens in a shadow world that eschews tracking or analysis. 

That it goes on, both across the world and at home, is something that cannot be ignored. And it is often Christians taking the lead in raising awareness of this sickening marketplace, supporting victims and campaigning for change. The Salvation Army are the government's main provider of victim support, offering care to victims of trafficking through their own services and in partnership with other charities.

Louise Gleich works on trafficking policy for member organisation Care, who are active campaigning for changes to the law. She said: "We strongly urge the government to go beyond prosecution measures and set a new standard in protection, prevention,compensation and rehabilitation for the thousands of men, women and children who are deceived, bullied, assaulted and oppressed for the financial gain and sexual gratification of others."

Soul Action, a partnership between Tearfund and Soul Survivor, handed in a 9,000- strong petition to home secretary Theresa May. The petition requests supply chains are made clear of slavery through greater transparency so that everyone can be assured of safe, fair and ethical working conditions and all consumers can buy goods that are guaranteed slave-free. 

Receiving the petition, the home secretary said modern slavery is "one of the greatest evils of our time and requires everyone to make a stand for freedom and fight for justice on behalf of the millions who are trapped".

The government are introducing a Modern Slavery Bill to draw together legislation and to strengthen both protection for victims and punishment for perpetrators. The current move follows the significant report It Happens Here from the Centre for Social Justice, which uncovered the practice of slavery in the UK, and what can be done to tackle it. 

Current legislation means different trafficking crimes are handled under different legislation. If someone is convicted of sex trafficking, one law is used. If it is for forced labour a different crime is committed, and it is dealt with as an immigration offence. The proposed legislation will tackle this confusion and hopefully enable more frequent prosecution of the perpetrators of these crimes. Under the current system different bodies address the status of those who may be victims of trafficking, it is hoped the Modern Slavery Bill will clarify this arrangement and ensure this decision is not affected by questions or concerns relating to immigration.

The new law is also expected to create a single individual responsible for overseeing how modern slavery is addressed by government. Christian campaigners are pushing to ensure this role is independent from government and has real powers to call it to account if it is not doing enough.

Many Christian organisations are involved in different aspects of supporting and caring for victims, as well as campaigning for change. The Evangelical Alliance is joining with them and many others in pressing the government to ensure the new law is an effective step in addressing slavery at homeand abroad. Passing a law does not solve a problem, and an ineffectual law can be worse than nothing at all if the government is seen to do something, but in reality nothing changes.

A further substantial change being pushed for as the law goes through parliament is to make sure supply chains are fully transparent. When we take something off the rack in the shop we do not know who produced it, how they were treated and whether they were enslaved. By making companies account for where they get their goods from the usage of slavery can be highlighted and tackled. 

The fact slavery continues in the world today should shock us into action. It has. Across the world Christians are campaigning against this injustice, and working to remove this blot on our collective conscience. By working together as the government introduce a new law this work can be strengthened and hopefully, in the future, such campaigning will be needed no more.


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