Cry for the people trade

Slavery was never abolished - it was driven underground and continues to flourish

At a ceremony to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade on 23 August, Ken Livingstone wept as he apologised on behalf of London and its institutions for their role in the transatlantic slave trade. The audience clapped and Françoise Rivière, assistant director general for culture at Unesco, praised Livingstone for being "the first high-visibility elected official to take such a historic stand". On the same day, in Liverpool, the International Slavery Museum opened.

Discussion of slavery is dominated by the past, but today, according to the International Labour Organisation, at least 12.3 million people are enslaved worldwide. Human trafficking (just one form of slavery) is the most profitable black-market trade after drugs and guns, raking in an estimated $32bn each year.

"The myth of slavery as a problem of the past provides a licence for inaction," says Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International. "Slavery today is commonplace and largely unrecognised, with new forms developing. Slavers exploit with impunity the most vulnerable and marginalised. Every society in the world, including in Europe and the United States, sustains slavery, either deliberately or by default."

In Pakistan, bonded labourers work their entire lives to repay impossible debts that gather interest as they are passed from generation to generation. Desperately poor Brazilians, lured by the promise of jobs, are held at gunpoint and forced to work in fazendas deep in the Amazon. Haitians are kidnapped and dragged across the border to the Dominican Republic, where they are made to cut sugar cane. Snakehead gangs in China traffic Chinese and North Koreans into the west, where they are forced to work in brothels or as unskilled labour. Families in Mauritania, where slavery was abolished in 1981, but not criminalised until August this year, still own and inherit household slaves.

What connects all these forms of slavery - and there are many more - is coercion, the threat or use of violence and the restriction of an individual's freedom of movement.

Slavery was never abolished; it was driven underground (outlawed by a raft of declarations, laws and international conventions), where it continues to flourish. A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in February this year concluded that more than 5,000 children are being forced to work as sex slaves in the UK and that some UK-based companies depend on slave-produced goods; although "complex subcontracting and supply chains, managed by agents elsewhere, often obscure this involvement".

Despite this, and the horrific stories that occasionally seize the headlines (such as the 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay by incoming tides in 2004), eliminating slavery has not been made a priority. Unlike drugs and guns, slaves do not threaten a nation's security or economy. The victims are often illegal immigrants and are always marginalised. Slavery no longer captures the public imagination.

"Just as we did two centuries ago, we need an abolitionist movement to end the trade in people," says Tom Fyans, head of campaigns for Amnesty International UK. "We need protection for the victims, laws that clearly criminalise this activity and, most importantly, we need to address the demand."

It is right to remember the slave trade, but there is a long way to go before we can celebrate its abolition.

For more information, visit

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?