Today is Anti-Slavery day. You, like my students, may have thought that slavery was a thing of the past, but over 13,000 people are estimated to be in modern slavery in the UK today. Slavery was considered acceptable in historical periods for multiple reasons, one significant reason being the concept that there were categories of human being who did not deserve the full freedom from domination enjoyed by the elite. This very concept is rearing its ugly head again today, as modern slavery incarcerates people not only through physical imprisonment and retention of identity documents, but also through perpetuating fear and ignorance among its victims.
The Declaration of Human Rights prohibits slavery not only in protection of the individual, but also in recognition of the universal status of all human beings as persons worthy of the chance to determine their own lives, pursue their own work and family lives and strive to overcome the difficulties we all face. It is so often in an attempt to escape from threats to these goals that people become entrapped in debt and forced labour. And in this we should recognise that their troubles are not dissimilar to those any of us might face, despite the stigma we have traditionally associated with slavery. Slavery is no longer something confined to illegal spaces of drugs and prostitution, but now a large number of seemingly legitimate service businesses (from nail bars to car washes) are engaged in using forced labour. These businesses have survived on the very fringes of profitability for a long time, but the dignity of those who labour legitimately is being tarnished by this illegal practice and its unfortunate victims.
In the United Kingdom we are often proud of our industrial heritage, our scenic country homes open to the public and our historic town centres. Yet so much of this innovation, industry and architecture relied upon the sufferring of others forced to work until death in order to support our past Imperial ambitions. While we may like to recall only the historic rejection of the slave trade, our ancestors benefited directly from it for multiple generations. In respect of this fact, we ought to strive all the harder to prevent the flourishing of its modern incarnation.
You can find out more about modern slavery here.