Someone said to me you’ve got to strike a balance, so here I am trying to do that. If you’re feeling more fun and frivolous right now, that’s okay, just come back later. But please do come back.
I’m asking you for a few minutes here. Not as many as 27 minutes, probably less then half of that. I ask you to put aside whatever you are doing and to take just a little time to read this. It is something important to me. I hope that you find it important to you too.
As a child growing up near Hull, the birthplace of William Wilberforce, I was at an early age made aware of the horrors inflicted upon millions during the years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 1807 Wilberforce finally won his crusade to end Britain’s role in this barbaric trade, and in 2007 events took place to commemorate the abolition of slavery here in the UK. Change takes time, but this eventually led to the International Slavery Convention of 1927, outlawing slavery throughout the world. What happened is a shameful time in history, where millions suffered unimaginable torment. But what I put here does not concern that. Though detestable, this history is the past, it cannot be altered.
It is now 2009. Though not laden onto sailing ships in chains and sold in open markets like cattle, the trafficking still goes on. Indeed, today the problem is worse than ever.
Throughout the world, at this very moment as you are now reading this, there are 27 million slaves existing in a living hell throughout the world.
You read that correctly. Today. Now. Twenty-seven million.
That is more than twice the number of slaves seized from Africa in the entire four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I’m not talking of those in poverty, the estimated 2 billion people who live on the equivalent of less than £2 a day.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
That great leader of civil rights was of course correct, but in this world of million-pound bonuses and bank bail-outs I doubt we’ll be eradicating the imbalance any day soon. What I’m talking about are the 27 million people in slavery.
By slavery, I mean someone who is forced to work without any pay, under the threat, and most often treatment, of violence, unable to walk away from the suffering they endure.
To acknowledge that debt bondage, forced labour and imprisoned prostitution flourish around the globe is one disturbing fact, even harder to believe that pure chattel slavery still exits – where a person is the property of another – for life, bought and sold, traded and inherited, branded and bred. They work in factories, in fields, in homes, in mines, in brothels… everywhere. Were you yourself so inclined, you could buy a slave TODAY for as little as £5. This small sum would add to the traffickers coffers, who collectively made around £20 billion last year. Indeed, the profit is so large that slavery has now become the second-largest illegal international trade, topped only by illicit arms dealing.
If this doesn’t yet shock you or trouble you, perhaps this will. Half of these 27 million are under the age of eighteen. They are children. Robbed forever of any true childhood.
I’ll apologise now if the following disturbs you further, but it is the best way to hit home. Think of a child you know, that you love. Really think of them. Of how much you love them. Of their innocence, their freedom.
Now imagine if that child you love so dearly had to swap places with one of these:
The 5 year old camel-jockey in the United Arab Emirates, fed only bread and water to keep his weight down. Abused by his captors, his injuries or death of little consequence, for he can be easily replaced by one of the thousands of others who share his fate.
The 12 year old girl who is kept in a cage under a brothel with several others, brought out as and when a man wishes to use her, like the ten who have already and the thirty more who also will that day before she has the fleeting escape of a few hours haunted sleep.
The 10 year old boy trained to kill in the name of ‘holy war’, his spirit broken, his mind brainwashed as he is forced to beat and shoot dead his own mother and grandparents
People sometimes say to me this is a far-off problem that is not our concern. India, Thailand, Sudan, Uganda, Burma…exotic places far from our reach? We cannot use the argument that because these places are far away we can do nothing. Nor can we think of slavery as something that only happens “over there”, wherever “there” may be. It is everywhere. An estimated 5,000 child slaves exist in appalling circumstances right here in the UK.
If you are now thinking “what can I do?” – I’ll let an abolitionist, David Batstone, answer you.
“I believe in the power of individuals to change the world. Social movements take root and blossom when enough individuals take personal action. When you tell yourself that there is nothing that you can do to arrest the global slave trade, you underestimate your own potential and abandon hope for those trapped in captivity.”
Slavery affects every one of us, we are all complicit in the trade and abuse, and we must educate ourselves to ensure that each time we make a purchase we are not unwittingly fuelling the exploitation. A surprising number of retailers source their products at a cheap cost that inflicts suffering upon millions. That beautifully-embroidered top or cushion or rug may seem such a bargain, but would we see it as such with the awareness that it is stained with the suffering of a child? In fact every time we go to the high street or supermarket we are potentially fuelling this boom in human trafficking and slavery – in which the greatest victims are children.
Do you like chocolate? More than 40% of the world’s cocoa supply comes from the Ivory Coast, where thousands of young boys are forced to work on the plantations that harvest the cocoa bean. Tricked, or sold into slavery at an average cost of about fifteen pounds each, these innocent children are barely fed, beaten and whipped regularly and often punished by having their feet cut off or being forced to drink their own urine. Most do not even know what chocolate tastes like, even though they have worked to the bone to produce it. Many major chocolate manufacturers have been guilty in using this tainted cocoa, including many of our most favoured brands.
But they are not alone in their inhumanity.
So, I implore you to try, as I am, to discover what products and industries have direct or indirect links to cheap profit made from unvalued life. Those who seek power also seek profit, so the best we can do is deny them this. As global citizens we need to say ‘no’ to products made with forced labour; to do no business with those countries that engage in slavery-like practices; and to press our government to act against slaving nations.
It is the right of every person to be born in freedom and live in liberty. It is the duty of every person to fight injustice and oppression.
One day, I hope, no single being will suffer in hardship, and every mouth will feed and every head will rest in comfort, and joy and peace will dominate our world. That is a dream far beyond our lifetime. However, we CAN and we MUST take the steps closer to this ideal, by ensuring that humanity once and for all brings an end to slavery, and that it truly becomes something of the past.
There is no doubt that this most illicit trade of human life cannot be stopped without a mass movement. That means that each and every-one of us has to make a stand say ‘NO’ to the sale and slavery of children, women and men, and see complete abolition become a reality.
I’m an abolitionist – are you?
Thank you. You gave me less then 27 minutes. Hopefully we can work together to make 27 million slaves our past, instead of a terrible fact in the present.
(first published July 2009)