It was meant to be a celebration of Britain’s moral leadership in Europe, but the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (March 25, 1807) has turned into an orgy of soul searching, breast beating, demands for apologies and cautious expressions of sorrow for past exploitation and suffering endured by African slaves. This weekend will see the archbishops of Canterbury, York, the West Indies and Ghana joining in a penitential Walk of Witness in London. The Bishop of Lincoln has already walked in the March of the Abolitionists dressed in yoke and chains.
Even as this drama of guilt and atonement unfolds, however, it is clear that the past is not the main issue. World media are awash with reports and essays on forms of slavery that shame the present: child labourers and soldiers; human trafficking; forced prostitution; indentured labourers; debt bondage; even forced early marriage. The International Labour Organisation estimates the number of people in forced servitude around the world at 12 million. That evidently does not include the 100 million children the ILO says are caught in the worst forms of child labour.
Let’s not forget that everywhere today slavery is officially banned. Yet according to John R. Miller, former United States Ambassador at Large on Modern Day Slavery, “the international slave trade along with internal slavery reaches into every country of the world”. An exhibition in London, named Slave Britain: The Twenty-First Century Trade in Human Lives, reveals in photographs how “human trafficking is a bitter reality for thousands of women, men and children in the UK today”. My own countrymen would probably balk at the idea that our socially enlightened little country harboured slaves, yet even in New Zealand we find people trafficked from Asia (mainly) and forced to work in sweatshops or brothels.
Is this really slavery, though? Spiked writer Nathalie Rothschild objects that the concept of a modern “Slave Britain” only “obscures the complexities behind individual and global adversities today”. Some people in poorer countries are kidnapped or tricked into going to another country to work against their will and without freedom and income, she points out, but others have taken free — albeit tough — decisions to become migrant labourers and are more easily exploited because of their status as illegal workers. She suspects that “all this slavery talk” is “designed to flatter the egos” of “modern-day abolitionists”. There may be a grain of truth in that.
Certainly, whether a person can be counted as a slave hinges on the issue of freedom. The slave by definition is one who has no freedom — physical freedom, anyway. He or she is effectively — if not literally — the property of another person and bound to do the will of their owner. The slavery at issue 200 years ago appears as the “real” slavery because of its systematic exploitation of one race and one continent and its overt brutality. But slavery can exist without those particular features. All it takes is for one human being to be completely within the power of another. In whatever way a person gets into this situation, the end result is the same.
A member of the Dalit ethnic group (formerly “untouchables”) in India may find himself a bonded labourer in a rice mill simply by accident of birth. The Brazilian man who seeks work making charcoal in the Amazon basin can wind up toiling six days a week for no wages and unable to afford to leave. The Indonesian woman who goes to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid is making a choice to improve her lot, but she can find herself severely abused and confined by her employer, without friends or recourse to help. In the same way, a Lithuanian girl who thought she was going on holiday to London found that her new friends were traffickers who sold her into prostitution. Each of these people, even if they made a choice somewhere along the line, is enslaved.
But one of these occupations is not like the others. Even if it is not forced in the strict sense, prostitution is in a different category to working in a mill, making charcoal or cleaning someone else’s house. The others can be honest and dignified occupations; prostitution cannot, even though some people today pretend that it can — that is, when it is freely chosen, fairly paid and protected by the same laws as other work.
We have argued before in MercatorNet, there is no such thing as a free prostitute. In fact, the person who sells her (or his) sex freely — if such a person exists — is more of a slave than the one who is forced. The Lithuanian girl mentioned above hated what she was doing: “When I was with clients I tried to pretend I was doing something else, but I couldn’t. It made me so angry that I was often violent towards the clients.” She retained an inner freedom and dignity. But the one who chooses to sell her body sells her soul, her human dignity, along with it. It is like volunteering to go in the slave auction. It is reducing oneself to a piece of property, to be used as the mere instrument of another’s will.
That is why, presumably, the United Nations at its beginning condemned all forms of prostitution and brothels as contrary to human rights. One of its first acts was to pass the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of others. The fact that a recent UN protocol on trafficking does not mention prostitution may say more about the political correctness that bedevils the organisation than its understanding of human rights.
The fact remains that treating a person — even if it is oneself — as an object for sale and use goes clean against human dignity and therefore human rights. It is the essence of slavery. How can the supposedly enlightened world fight this evil in the mills of India, the cocoa fields of Africa or the mines of Latin America — where “employers” could find as many arguments to justify themselves as the glibbest prostitutes’ collective boss — if it is accepted in principle at home as a legitimate choice?
Suggestions for ending the modern slave trade are not lacking. Rothschild wants immigration laws relaxed to make it easier for foreigners to work in the UK. Slavery historian Adam Hochschild says trade reform would do more for Africa than anything else. Ethan Kapstein, writing in Foreign Affairs[i], plugs for economic and other sanctions to force states to address trafficking. These are all worth pursuing.
Moreover, since the United States passed its Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, many states are showing greater commitment to addressing the problem. Britain itself has launched several initiatives to rescue trafficked women in sex establishments and to prosecute those running the trade. Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to be poised to announced a new strategy, harnessing the moral fervour of the moment to strike a Wilberforcean blow against the slave traders still in our midst.
If he wants to do something really worthy of the great abolitionist, however, he would do better to make up his government’s mind about prostitution itself. It is an issue on which they have consulted extensively without making a clear stand. What a shame. Facing up to the humanly degrading character of the act itself would really put Britain into the moral leadership stakes again. On present showing, we may have to wait another hundred years.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.
[i] “The New Global Slave Trade,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006