This week, thousands will flock to the Chelsea Flower Show to celebrate the 'best of British'. As you walk around you will find one garden designed by Juliet Sargeant that is a tribute to the best of British society - an array of bright flowers and multi-coloured front doors. Yet explore a little further, and in its dark centre you will uncover the stark and shocking reality that today, in modern Britain, there are more than 13,000 people living in slavery.
Traffickers and slave masters use coercion, violence, threats and deception to manipulate and exploit vulnerable people as commodities for the purpose of profit and criminal gain. You may no longer be able to see the shackles, but it is everywhere. Even in the wealthy streets of Chelsea itself, where almost certainly women in domestic servitude are suffering at the hands of abusive householders.
More than 250 years ago, the great abolitionist William Wilberforce said: "You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know." The Modern Slavery Garden at Chelsea Flower Show is playing an important role in making sure we are all aware of this cruel and inhuman practice happening on our very shores. And I am sure that no-one who knows will then choose to look the other way. But what should we do? How can we begin to fight an evil which is so unseen?
I believe there are two critical things we must do. Firstly we must stop it being such a low risk crime for the slave masters. This means making sure our police look at this issue as serious and often organised crime, increasing the number of investigations, disrupting operations and making sure there are more convictions.
Secondly we need to make sure it is less profitable. And this is where we all have a role to play. Without meaning to, without being aware, we are all contributing to the profits of slave masters through the things we buy every day. It could be the seafood that we eat, that has been caught by people kept as slaves on boats in Thailand who can be murdered for stepping out of line. Or it could be the bed that you buy from a high street store: earlier this year a factory owner in Yorkshire who supplied beds to high street retailers was convicted of using slave labour.
But things are changing. Businesses with a global turnover of over £36million that are trading in the UK will have to comply with the new Modern Slavery Act. They will have to tell you what they are doing to eradicate slavery from their supply chain. We are the first country in the world to introduce this. And it is a major step forward. But only if we, the customers, make it a real priority for companies.
We all need to look at the products we are buying, look at what those companies are doing and decide whether we think it is really enough, joining campaigns such as #AskTheQuestion. And if we need to boycott those companies that aren't taking this seriously, then that is what we must do. Let the Modern Slavery Garden at Chelsea Flower Show be a reminder that we all have the responsibility to tell companies through our actions that no profit margin is worth a human life.
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