One of the many signs that society is shifting into an even nastier variant of capitalism is the growth of slavery, something it’s easy to think of as obsolete since the 19th century, but which has never gone away. Today, the number of people kept as slaves worldwide could be between 21 million (according to the International Labour Organisation) and 46 million (Global Slavery Index), an accurate figure being hard to find in what is, by definition, a shadowy, underground industry. 13,000 people in the UK are thought to be living in slavery.
Slavery involves using fraud or coercion to recruit, harbour, transport or provide someone for forced labour, including prostitution. People might be enticed to accept a job, perhaps from overseas, only to then have their documents withheld by their new employers and be made to work under the threat of violence. They are usually kept in cramped, dilapidated accommodation owned by the slave masters.
As slavery has increased in Britain, so has awareness of it. Channel 4’s recent documentary The Modern British Slave Trade (Channel 4) was a useful, no-frills insight into the police investigation of two cases: a family-run slave camp of block-paving workers in Gloucestershire and a Cambridgeshire-based gang who exploited farm labourers.
The traffickers target people who need money and who are living on the fringes of mainstream society. In the UK, some of those kept in slavery travelled here from Eastern Europe or Vietnam hoping for a better life after having been given empty promises about work and accommodation. In Cambridgeshire, Eastern Europeans gather in Wisbech town centre at night waiting for the vans which take them to farms to work. In Scotland, especially, some nail salons are staffed by Vietnamese workers paid little and kept in squalor. Other recruits for the slave trade come from within Britain, vulnerable through poverty or isolation. Some traffickers target homeless people because it’s cheaper and easier to use them than paying to transport people from overseas, and also because they’re less likely to be missed. Vans regularly turn up at soup kitchens or outside homeless hostels looking for desperate people who haven’t heard the warnings. Women are a ‘very valuable commodity’ who are often coerced into sham marriages and sex work, after being threatened with having their organs ‘harvested’ so the alternatives don’t sound as bad.
Working days are as long as 19 hours, without any rights or safeguards. The police investigators film one of the slaves being beaten up; punishments are a constant threat. What wages the slaves receive are taken back by their owners through extortionate rents charged for sub-standard housing. Added to this are charges for food, transport to work and other spurious expenses, leaving the slaves with a few pence, or nothing, or in debt. The shared houses and camps don’t tend to have locked gates or high fences, but escape is prevented by threats of being killed when recaptured. Many people wouldn’t have anywhere else to go anyway. Slaves from abroad are unlikely to get another source of income (including state benefits), and if their ID has been taken, then they would find it even harder to cope in an unfamiliar country. Slavery, in a twisted way, gives them a place in society. Some of those no longer seen as any use end up getting ‘fly-tipped’. It is thought that this is what happened to a slave whose body was found outside the Gloucestershire camp.
In the programme, the slave masters’ plush, expensive homes are raided by the police and they are arrested. 289 offences were prosecuted in England and Wales under The Modern Slavery Act 2015 in its first year. The Act consolidated and amended existing slavery and trafficking legislation, originally dating back two hundred years. Some experts criticised the Act for not focusing enough on the needs of victims, who are likely to need counselling and rehabilitation. A few safe houses are available for slaves who have been rescued or escape, but they still face an uncertain, difficult future. Adjusting to a different life, whatever it is, may be a struggle, especially if they have been trapped for years or even decades. When questioned by the police, some deny they have been kept as slaves, through fear of being deported, or reprisals, or having been brainwashed in to thinking their life is acceptable.
Slavery is the most extreme way in which people get exploited. Profiting from someone else’s labour power is built in to the system, of course, so the difference between slavery and ordinary employment is one of degree, not kind. The vast majority of us are commodities to be bought and sold on the labour market, of which the slave trade is part. Slavery is possible because society makes some people vulnerable and desperate enough to fall into it, and others greedy and cruel enough to exploit them.