By Josh Vuglar
Am I not a man and a brother? From the story of the oppression of the Jews in Egypt as told in the Book of Exodus, to the brutality of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery often seems something distant and remote. A horror consigned to history forever more.
Yet, slavery persists and has even increased. It has become a horrifying dark secret hiding in plain sight in the 21st century, where information has never before been shared so easily nor overlooked so flagrantly. Around 12 million slaves were transported from Africa to the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries. Today, there are an estimated 40 million salved in the world. Tens to possibly hundreds of thousands are of course slaves here in the UK itself.
Our second fellowship programme session focused on modern day slavery and human trafficking where we heard from Caroline Barnard from the Clewer Initiative. It was interesting to learn about the different sectors in which modern day slavery in the UK operates, from nail bars to prostitution, agricultural labour to the manifesting of clothing. I was extremely shocked to learn about how the determination of whether someone has been a slave is often made by UK Visas and Immigration, and about how someone’s history as a subject of modern-day slavery does not automatically provide them with refugee status, extending the traumatic impact on a person’s life.
As an organisation operating very much in a similar way to René Cassin – a human rights organisation operating in the sphere of religious organisations – I was very much impressed with what the Clewer Initiative has been able to accomplish. Ensuring that modern slavery is a topic that is on people’s minds is no mean feat. Their work with limited capacity to ensure that slavery is discussed across many Church of England dioceses and church networks should be applauded, and it sets a very positive example of what can be accomplished with a clear focus. The Car Wash app and the use of technology to tackle the issue of modern slavery in a way that engages with people in a dynamic way is also something that we, as René Cassin, should seek to develop further, building on the very good work that has already been accomplished.
The key thing I learned in the first session of the fellowship programme was that human rights are inextricably linked to the political sphere – that human rights are innately political. Likewise, in learning about modern-day slavery, I learnt about another strong connection. We often distinguish modern-day slavery from other forms of labour exploitation, and there are, I think, valid reasons for doing so. Slavery as a state where a person is deprived of any liberty is a universally-acknowledged concept, the anathema of all who care about their fellow humans, and using the language of slavery is effective for gaining public attention. Yet, at the same time, slavery is completely tied to other forms of labour exploitation.
The production of an iPhone at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, the building of a FIFA World Cup stadium in Doha, Qatar, and the making of clothes in an unsafe textiles factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, may or may not be considered modern-day slavery depending on the ability of the workers involved to leave their jobs. Yet, I would posit, any distinctions made between slavery and other forms of labour exploitations would matter little to the workers involved, to those, now and in centuries and millennia past, who have been subject to such harrowing exploitative practices.