Anti-slavery campaigners outside parliament. Photo: Getty
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During an unexpected boom in the industry, David Cameron is fumbling on slavery

As slavery all over the world is more prolific and lucrative than ever, a new British abolitionist movement is beginning. Just like 200 years ago, however, it is encountering “dark forces” at the top.

The 35 Afghans found in a shipping container on Tilbury Docks this month will provide ample grist for the government’s "Slavery Is Closer Than You Think" campaign. Yet such incidents represent only a tiny fraction of the globalised networks of exploitation that put food on our plates and clothes on our backs.

With as many as 29.8m slaves all over the world today, generating $150bn in illegal profits every year, slavery is more prolific and more lucrative than ever. Increasingly, this new globalised slavery has been found running through the supply chains that lead directly to our high streets and supermarkets.

After the numerous exposés of slavery and child labour on West African cocoa farms left a such bitter taste in the mouths of Cadbury’s, Mars, Nestlé and the other confectionary giants at the top of the chains, the Centre for Social Justice released its landmark report It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery. The report made recommendations for a new Transparency in UK Supply Chains Act.

The proposed Act was modelled on its American predecessor, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, according to which large companies doing business in California are required to disclose publically their efforts to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. Yet when the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill came before parliament in 2012, it was soon kicked quietly into touch.

Despite support from church leaders, business groups, anti-slavery organisations and MPs on all sides, the debate on the Bill was deferred and failed to be heard before the end of the 2012-13 parliamentary session. Britain’s would-be Transparency in Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Act therefore made no further progress.

Later that year, when the government unveiled its plans to introduce a new all-inclusive Modern Slavery Bill before the end of the current parliamentary session, many believed Britain was making its triumphant return to the forefront of international abolitionism. Yet, nowhere in the Bill were supply chains mentioned.

Ignoring protests from the evidence review team, commissioned by the government to gather intelligence for the legislation, the Home Office issued a statement explaining that supply chain auditing would remain voluntary, because mandatory requirements would be an “additional burden” on businesses.

On the same day, the Guardian released its exposé of the Thai prawn industry. With memories of the Rana Plaza factory disaster still reverberating in the consumer conscience, the report revealed a picture of slavery, in the most traditional sense of the word, at the bottom of seafood supply chains that led directly to supermarket giants Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

After the cocoa farm scandal of 2010, the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 and the Thai prawn-fishing exposé of 2014, public opinion in the UK is primed to bring companies to account for their actions on the world stage. 82 per cent of Britons polled last year would support a law requiring large companies to report on slavery in their supply chains.

Moreover, MPs from all major parties have expressed their support for supply chain legislation. Business leaders have come forward to argue that legislating on supply chains would “level the playing field” and ensure that companies taking action against supply chain slavery are not being undercut by unscrupulous competitors. Even the Home Secretary, in a letter to The Sunday Times, said the Modern Slavery Bill should “encourage companies to make a commitment that their suppliers do not use slave labour”.

Politicians have been prompted, therefore, to look towards the top and argue, in the words of Michael Connarty MP, that “the Home Secretary is involved in a contest against some dark force in Number 10 Downing Street that is trying to stop the government moving all the way forward on the Bill, particularly on questions such as supply chains.”

Be that as it may, the fact remains that unlike two hundred years ago, when Britain led the global abolitionist movement by example, the UK government is now content to let America take the lead. British civil society has shown itself to be as strong as ever. Think tanks, journalists and opposition leaders have brought this issue as close to the top as they can. We still meet resistance, however, when we demand that the government makes demands of businesses.

In 2011, David Cameron expressed his ambition for the UK to “lead the world in eradicating modern-day slavery”. Until and unless the Prime Minister addresses this issue in the appropriate context, and recognises that slavery does not just happen in the UK, but for the UK all over the world, the country will remain a one-time enemy and long-time friend of the immortal international trade in slaves.

Michael Pollitt works on the Transitions Forum and The Culture of Prosperity programmes at the Legatum Institute. He tweets @MJPollitt

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt