Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Is there really slavery in the UK?

I was reading about a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) today that talked of contemporary slavery in the UK. According to the report, slavery still exists in this country, two centuries after the trade is slaves was banned.

For the report’s authors, “all forms [of slavery] share elements of the exploitative relationship which have historically constituted slavery: severe economic exploitation; the lack of a human rights framework; and control by one person over another through the prospect or reality of violence.”

There is no doubt that the above conditions do exist within the UK – particularly, but not solely, in the areas of people trafficking and work-gangs – and such egregious practices should be vigorously stamped out by the government.

But I am not clear that these three conditions alone justify the label “slavery”. Leave aside for a moment elements of the report that seem to imply that a combination of low wages, illegal management practices and a fear of loss of employment constitutes slavery. To my mind, there is a fourth key ingredient to slavery that marks it out from other forms of enforced servitude. It is the common thread that links together the slave owning states of Greece, Rome, the early modern European monarchies and many pre-civil war American states. It is legitimacy.

This is implicitly recognised in the 1926 Slavery Convention, which defines slavery as “… the status and/or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised” (my emphasis). The fundamental difference between the Roman Servus, the Viking Thrall and the Georgia cotton-picker on the one hand, and the trafficked Latvian factory worker or Cambodian prostitute on the other is that the former were owned by their masters as legal property. The owner was free to do with them as they wished – not merely de facto, but de jure. The slaves could hope for no help from the state. Until the Age of the Emperor Claudius, it was entirely legal for a Roman citizen to kill his or her slaves; in the plantations of the West Indies, slaves were whipped until the flesh came away from their bodies.

By comparrison, the modern “slavery” that is described (and decried) by the JRF, among others, is an entirely illegal practice. In this sense, it is no different from any other form of coercion. It differs only in duration from being forced to do something at knifepoint by a robber or a rapist. It is more akin to kidnapping, assault (real or threatened) and various other illegal practices, including paying below the minimum wage, illegally deducting wages, threatening to withdraw employment or accomodation without notice, and so on. All these are wrong and many of them are wicked, but they do not in themselves constitute slavery.

Perhaps the key point is that if the trafficked sex-worker were to approach a policeman and ask for help, she would be protected and her tormenters jailed. The same could not be said for a Greek σκλάβος.

One might argue that this does not matter. The use of the term “slavery” is a deliberately emotive gesture to focus our attention on what are, nonetheless, terrible crimes. If fewer people are trafficked and fewer labourers bonded, then it is a good thing. Furthermore, language is commonly evolving (“nice” used to mean wanton and dissolute, while one would be wary of using “gay” to describe any old happy and joyful state of being), and as legal ownership of people does not exist anymore, it is reasonable to shift the definition to where it is most useful.

I find this unsatisfactory, however. Partly this is because it remains useful to have a term that specifically defines the legal status of ownership of another human being. But it is also because slavery does still exist in its traditional sense. There are still societies where people can be legally owned, or at least where they can to all intents and purposes. In Burma, for example, tens of thousands of forced labourers work on road-building for the military junta; in southern Sudan there are slave markets openly selling captives. Whether the right to own another human being is written in the statute books is irrelevant (purists may disagree!). What matters is that the authorities not only turn a blind eye but actively uphold the process.

This is an intolerable abuse of liberty. It should be noted, therefore, that where the machinery of the state acts not to protect the liberty of individual but to help strip it away, the state can no longer be said to exist by the will of the people (having the consent of the majority of the people is not sufficient), and so can no longer be taken to be sovereign. We should not only treat such states as pariahs, but be willing to force them to comply with international norms and humanitarian principles – as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims (Article 4) that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.

And what of our modern, British victims, from whom I would remove the title “slave”? The key is also in the question of legitimacy. Because they are not the legal property of their persecutors, their salvation lies not in manumission but in education and understanding.

As JRF notes with justifiable disapproval, “although the police see trafficked people as victims, the immigration service sees them as illegal entrants.” For my mind, they should at least be returned home with dignity, but we might even consider granting them (at least temporary) immigration status. There is of course moral hazard in allowing them to stay simply because they have been victims. Yet if the victims fear that the authorities will return them home – to a place from which they were clearly prepared to risk and suffer great hardship to escape – they may not come forward, which makes apprehending and prosecuting the perpetrators harder, and will therefore also exacerbate the illegal immigration problem.

While we are at it, we should make great efforts to convey to potential victims that they have rights in law that will be upheld, and that the authorities are sympathetic to their suffering and not in the pockets of their persecutors. I have often wondered why the authorities do not (perhaps they do!) distribute leaflets in many languages to prostitutes telling them that if they are being threatened, the police will help them and turn a blind eye to the fact that they have been prostituting themselves (which anyway is a victimless crime).

Where forced servitude is supported by the very authorities that should be stamping it out, we should use diplomatic (and, if necessary, not-so-diplomatic) pressure to see that it is eradicated. Where it is illegal, authorities should work with the victims to apprehend and prosecute the criminals responsible for their hardship. Whether or not we call it slavery, there is a great deal of suffering here and across the world.

1 comment:

Tristan said...

I note that politicians are flirting with actual slavery in this country yet again.
Talk of forced 'voluntary' work is cropping up. That's just slavery with the state owning you, just as conscription and national service is.

Then again, putting my contentious hat on, it could be argued that paying taxes on work is a form of slavery in that the state claims ownership of part of your labour...