It’s time to end slavery once and for all


Today is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It is a moment to reflect upon the progress, or lack of, in the continuing struggle to eradicate slavery.

Anti-Slavery International can trace our origin back to the beginning of that struggle at the end of the 18th century when Thomas Clarkson, my most illustrious predecessor, first took up the task of organising to end slavery.

As the oldest international human rights organisation in the world we have a longer historical perspective on the issue than most, as well as a broader, geographical perspective than many.

So in considering the challenges in combating contemporary forms of slavery there are a couple of matters that I think it is worth reflecting upon.

First through the history of the struggle against slavery there has been an erroneous belief in ‘silver bullets’, simple solutions that will end any particular problem, whether it’s ending the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or making slavery itself illegal.

Each of these achievements has confined slavery further and further to the margins of society, but none of them have managed to eradicate it completely.

This is simply because slavery evolves faster than the systems hitherto established to eradicate it.

What is needed is a more dynamic and permanent set of processes that will progressively reduce the scope of slavery and contribute to the empowerment of those vulnerable to it.

The term slavery may describe situations as varied as that of the thousands of South Asian migrant workers trapped in forced labour to build the infrastructure for Qatar’s World Cup, to women kept as domestic slaves in a London household for 30 years, to a family born into chattel slavery in Mauritania, to the young women and girls who are kept in forced labour in India, the world’s largest democracy, to produce garments for the high streets of the Global North.

Each of these diverse situations requires a different set of response to ameliorate it.

But if we look more closely at these various forms of slavery, we can see that slavery emerges at the conjunction of three broad factors: individual vulnerability (usually this includes poverty but it can simply be about physical weakness); social exclusion; and failure of government and the rule of law.



The issue of social exclusion, and with it discrimination, is a fundamental one in slavery.

In Latin America today many forced labourers are indigenous people.

In Western Europe most people in slavery are migrants workers.

In South Asia most people in slavery are Dalits or from other scheduled castes or minority groups.

This is important for a variety of reasons, not least that it inhibits the issue from becoming a political one. If slavery is being inflicted upon groups and individuals who the wider society simply does not like, then that wider community is more likely to tolerate the abuses without demanding that their governments do something about it.

And slavery is very much a failure of government and the rule of law.

Child labourers enslaved in the garment workshops of Delhi tell how when the workshop owners fail to pay bribes to the police, the police come, arrest the children and hold them hostage, stopping work, until the bribes are paid.

The appalling lack of capacity of Indian courts exacerbates further these factors.

The backlog of cases means that few do come to trial, effectively making a nonsense of the promises of that country’s laws and constitution.

So a central front in the struggle to end slavery must relate to building the capacity of states to effect rule of law.

There must be sufficient judges properly trained in human rights in general and in anti-slavery rights in particular to ensure that rule of law pertains within the states borders for all its citizens.

And beyond those borders states should ensure that they deploy labour attaches to every country that their citizens travel to for work to press for the respecting of their rights.


Global economy

Of course, there remains a huge lacuna with regards to international rule of law and this is the question of how, in this globalising political economy, international businesses and individual business executives can be held to account on human rights issues in their supply chains.

This is a central requirement in the struggle against contemporary slavery, particularly as they extend their operations into countries whereextant evidence shows slavery is rife and regularly pollutes business supply chains.

If history shows us one thing it is that a request for voluntary initiatives to respond to systemic abuses such as slavery in international business supply chains do little to change the system.

What is needed is a change in the system such as that which the UK has pioneered on bribery.

In other words there is a need to introduce extra-territorial legislation to make explicit the legal accountability of international business entities and their executives in relation to slavery in their supply chains.

The second major challenge to consider is the comforting myth that slavery is a thing of the past.

Recent International Labour Organization (ILO) data estimates that there are still at least 21 million people in slavery across the world, so we still have a long way to go before slavery is completely eradicated.

One consequence of this is that development and anti-poverty work as currently practiced are substantially blind to the continuing atrocity of the millions of people in slavery across the globe.

Hence development practices often threaten to either absolutely or relatively worsen the situations of those in slavery.

For example in 2005 during the West African famine our colleagues in the organization Timidria noticed that slaves were being used in food for work programmes: they were being sent to these schemes by their masters who would then confiscate the ration card they received for their labour.

In other words an important and well-meaning humanitarian programme was contributing to the absolute worsening of their lives.

Matters may have improved somewhat since 2005, but this is not an isolated case. Hence the imperative of reducing slavery needs to become a central focus of the entire international development sector.

This can be obtained by two principle means.

First slavery eradication must be made a post-2015 development goal, recognising the fundamental constraint that slavery is on poverty reduction as well as the continuing human rights atrocity that it is. Second, and to advance this development goal, all aid actors must be required to state how their programmes address the challenges of slavery and non-gender based discrimination in their operations.

It should be an acceptable response to say that it will have no impact: some programmes will necessarily respond to other priorities.

But the requirement should be that at least they consider this matter in the same way as they are now rightly required to consider gender in programming.

Slavery is a human institution and like all human institutions it can be changed by human action. But we must stop just tinkering at its edges and instead aim to destroy it utterly.