Have we been successful in abolishing slavery? By Helen Carter

Today marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.  Acknowledging the efforts of countless men, and in some cases women, to make the slave trade illegal.

In the UK, we hold William Wilberforce as a champion of human rights. He introduced the proposal to abolish slavery to parliament in 1789; however, we should also acknowledge Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp – the leading abolitionists who set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade in 1787.  After its initial rejection in 1790 the Abolition Bill eventually passed in Parliament in 1807 leading to the British Slavery Abolition Act which came into force in 1834, some 45 years after the first petition to Government.

Whilst we are taught the names of Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Granville, what is less discussed is the activities undertaken by other key players. In 1787, Ottabah Cugoano shared his personal experiences of the slave trade through an essay ‘Thoughts and Sentiments on Evils of Slavery’. This was the first published work and account by an African person.

In 1792, over 500 petitions were presented to parliament, sent by men and women from all over England, making their voices heard and making it clear that they did not see a place for slavery in their society.  In 1791 – 1792, over 300,000 people (mostly women) became involved in boycotting goods, such as sugar, that had been produced with slave labour.

This is a just a taste of the activity and passion invoked by men and women 214 years ago, who realised that human rights of everyone on the planet needed to be respected, and that people are not for sale.  

The act was passed in 1807 and it covered the British colonies, however it took longer for it to take effect throughout the British Empire.

Today, there is a lot of focus on the role slavery had in building the British Empire and conversations flow passionately amongst people who view Britain’s history through the lens of abuse it supported.  There could be a significant blog on the role of slavery in History, and with the focus of today being the abolition of slavery, I have no doubt there will be quite a few available to read.

I, however, want to take a different tact and put a mirror up to today’s society to question whether we have learnt the lessons of the past, and have been successful in abolishing slavery?

The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 40.3million victims of Modern Slavery in 2021, of which 68% are forced to provide goods and services all over the globe.  More now than ever in history!

The term ‘Modern Slavery’ was meant to recharge our focus, but if we look at how victims are coerced (and in the most serious cases sold between exploiters), how we look at the role of some governments in promoting and instigating slavery, becomes apparent that the abolition of slavery needs further attention, and an effort as passionate and aggressive as 214 years ago.

We have the Modern Slavery act (albeit with flaws), and we have the intelligence and visibility now of what is happening across the globe. There are many voices, trying to be heard, amongst the population exposing the horrors that some people find themselves in when working to produce goods and services we take for granted, and some businesses are trying to understand their supply chains, but not enough.

If you think that slavery was abolished, then take a moment to look at what you purchase daily! Check to see if there are any links to exploitation and slavery in its severest form.  I recommend visiting www.slaveryfootprint.org – a great tool where you can list what you purchase in a year, and it will give you an indication of how big the problem is. Personally, I try to buy as ethically as I can, but I too had a footprint of 50 victims of slavery in my 2021 purchases alone. In one day, I found exposes in cotton, PPE, solar panels, smart tech, chocolate, and waste handling supply chains, both in the UK and internationally.  These can be added to shrimps/prawns, tomatoes, avocados, coffee, palm oil, timber, labour, demolition, and the list goes on…

Look at the fate of Uyghurs – one of China’s ethnic minorities – who are forced to produce cotton and polysilicon (amongst other products) that are exported and consumed in the UK.

Look at the fate of the construction workers in Qatar, who were forced to work for very little pay in building the stadiums for the world cup, and who have been told to hide for the duration of the tournament without pay, to ensure that the world sees a clean and happy world cup.

Think of the victims of operation fort in the UK (400 victims trafficked into the UK) who were subjected to abuse and found themselves in numerous UK supply chains, across multiple industries.

So, whilst we take a moment to remember the efforts of our ancestors and acknowledge the role we played in the issue – from both a supporter of the trade AND as an instigator of change – it is essential to understand that the demographics may have changed, but the issue has not gone away.

Learning from the past is something we must do to ensure we can say we really have abolished slavery at some point in our future.

There are three important things you can do:

  • Plot your slavery footprint via slaveryfootprint.org
  • Look to see if your company is committed to addressing modern slavery in policies and statements
  • Consider who you would spend your money with and understand that cheap may save you money, but the cost maybe borne in human suffering further into the supply chain.

If you want to understand more about how your businesses should be addressing modern slavery within its organisation and into the supply chain, please feel free to get in touch with me via helen@actionsustainability.com or 07825 059085. At Action Sustainability, we have lots of ways to help and would be happy to discuss.

Useful resources:

Modern slavery – Supply Chain Sustainability School FREE learning Modern Slavery – Supply Chain Sustainability School (supplychainschool.co.uk)

Global Slavery Index – Global Slavery Index

Slavery Footprint – www.slaveryfootprint.org

UN – International Day for the Abolition of Slavery – International Day for the Abolition of Slavery | United Nations

For more information

Helen Carter
Lead Consultant

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