It's been over 200 years since Wilberforce's Slave Trade Act of 1807 and exactly 150 since Lincoln's 13th Amendment: yet there are more slaves in the world than ever. Will this one Act be the stopper we need?
"Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature - opposition to it, is his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery [extension] brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow."
Such were the words of Abraham Lincoln at a speech in Peoria, Illinois in 1854 - six years before his rise to presidency, and seven before the outbreak of the American Civil war.
Just a few nights ago on Wednesday 29th January, STOP THE TRAFFIK led its own enquiry into the currently drafted Modern Slavery Bill: offering all those present a rare opportunity to hear from the man not only responsible for researching, drafting and championing this Bill (in the space of a single year) but for ensuring it is equipped with the weaponry it needs to battle human slavery for as long as that heinous crime exists - within the UK at least. And it was on this night that Abraham Lincoln's words came back to me on a chariot of tragic irony: for as I sat listening to Frank Field MP outline his hopes - and fears - for the Bill, seated beneath the 'Stars and Stripes' spire of the Oasis Church (gifted by Lincoln himself to the people of its house for their support in his fight to abolish slavery in the US), I was forced to swallow a single harsh truth: that nothing has really changed. Slavery is not only alive and well, it has succeeded in becoming so integrated into our systems, economies and daily lives, we can barely tell it is there: the trick of the Devil acquired and utilised by mere man to the greatest effect.
Slavery...Slave markets...Slave drivers...
The associated images that are instantaneously conjured up in our minds with those few words will most likely be emblematic of the trans-Atlantic slave trade: of hellish ships transporting men and women across the seas like cargoes of flesh and sinew...sweat and blood drenched sugar and cotton plantations...physical and mental bondage...rape...the daily murder of human beings who were seen as anything but...and at this time, perhaps even Chiwetel Ejiofor forever running before our eyes in a puffed-sleeved white shirt...
The harsh truth is however, that whilst most of us would like to think such images are a figment of history neatly stored away in textbooks, museums and film archives, they remain as true of today's global slave trade as that existent two centuries ago - barring one thing: the colour of the skin of the slaves now in bondage. For true to any Equality and Diversity policy, today's slave trade discriminates not against race, age, creed, or sex.
As pointed out by STOP THE TRAFFIK's founder Steve Chalke, slavery in most industries is still going strong, with human trafficking making up the second largest source of illegal income in the world and exceeded only by drugs trafficking. Over 200,000 women and girls aged 14-23 are trafficked to work in the cotton industry in the Tamil Nadu region of India alone; thousands of children (no-one knows just how many) are enslaved by the world's cacoa plantations to fill our shops with non-Fairtrade, non UTZ-certified chocolate bars, and as for the daily abuse, rape and murder of slaves? Pop into your local brothel (don't worry, you'll find one nearby), pro-bono lawyer's office or morgue, and you're sure to come up against a few (hundred) cases that go unheard of and unreported in our newspapers. After all, there are an estimated 21million slaves across the world - more than at any other time, and they continue to be taken from and shipped to every country in the world.
The question is of course, can a single act of parliament put a stopper to this billion pound trade here in the UK? Can it equip law and government enforcement agencies with that missing bullet that will halt slave traders from daring to operate (and perhaps consider other lines of 'business'), whilst truly freeing those currently living unbearable lives?
If history is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding 'no'. It has been over two centuries since William Wilberforce's Slave Trade Act of 1807 put an end to the use of slavery in Britain and its colonies. And just under 150 years since Lincoln managed to push through the thirteenth amendment. Why then has slavery not only continued to survive, but breed?
As with anything, it boils down to money.
No Bill, no amendment, no inspirational speech can physically change anything if it is not paralleled by investments and resources to back their words with an endless punch.
For example, Field states that the Modern Slavery Bill's foremost aim is to place the highest priority on the needs and care of the survivors of slavery. Great. But unless our financially-inept governments can back this up by either ringfencing resources for (or at least halting ongoing cuts being made to) frontline services which shelter victims at that first moment of escape or rescue, and help them deal with law or government agencies (in which they have little to zero trust) and even support them in prosecuting their traffickers, then how can this Bill ever hope to make that objective a reality?
This Bill also wants Britain's business community to be free from trafficked labour. But as Field himself highlighted, the Bill does not include tackling trafficking in business supply chains: a gaping black hole that effectively means dealing only with the evidenced use of slave labour on home soils. It is all very well asking we, the consumers, to force businesses to put their money where their (social-corporate spouting) mouths are through the use of consumer power, but we also need businesses to be held legally accountable for their actions by a government that isn't afraid of scaring off multi-million pound income-generating business owners who breach human rights laws in the production of their goods (more Rana Plaza disasters anyone?).
And what of trafficked victims of non-EU status: what will be their plight? Will the UK Border Agency, judiciary and other law enforcement bodies be given the training and tools they need to deal with trafficked immigrants who have, as Field puts it, "come up against evil" with the care, consideration and sensitive support they need? Will this government, and the next, and the next, and the next, take actions to invest in this much neglected area of works so crucial to ensure prosecutions of traffickers actaully make it to the courts?
And what will happen to the recovered assets of captured slave owners / traffickers? Will they be reinvested in the rehabilitation of victims, re-vamping of agencies, or disappear into bottomless coffers?
Our need for a Modern Slavery Bill in 2014 is a tragic enough fact - and one which I cannot help but think both Lincoln and Wilberforce would have looked upon with heavy hearts. But how much more tragic it would be were it to fall short of its commendable goals, simply because we did not ask the right questions and demand the right answers at this crucial time.
We all have until February 10th (incidentally, two days before Lincoln's birthday) to make our voices heard and make sure this government heeds our concerns.
So do it.
In the words of its forger, "We are on the cusp of a great historical advance for this country."
Our time to be a part of it is now.