Invisible handcuffs: How slavery manifests
itself in modern day Britain

Attempting to justify slavery in any of its forms is to defend the indefensible; it is the total abrogation of the self and the premise of human worth. To justify a living wage though, for example, as opposed to a minimum wage is a legitimate political debate; as is the debate surrounding unpaid internships and work placements etc. despite what the liberals would have you believe. As such it should be with a slight air of national pride in which the draft Modern Day Slavery bill is embraced. It is the first of its kind in Europe and amongst the first of its kind in the world, though has raised some notable concerns amongst industrialists.

The Slavery Abolition Act was successfully passed in 1833 and its applicability was to the entirety of the then British Empire. The Act was met with only a lukewarm reception, being by passed in many of the colonies through the system of so called ‘apprenticeships’, and section 24 of the Act set aside twenty million pounds for compensating the slave owners who had lost what was then perceived  as property. To the more cynical observer it could well be considered as a deceitful reallocation of wealth as the tax levied to pay the generally wealthy slave owners amounted to 40% of the annual government expenditure. The subsequent trading of slaves carried on underground, alongside the introduction of poor laws meaning the situation improved for only the very worst off.

According to the global slavery index, Britain is now amongst the joint foremost nations in terms of admonishing the prevalence of slavery, alongside Ireland and Iceland. Other than New Zealand all of the other top ten in regards to the prevention and deterrence of slavery are within Europe. This is in some ways indicative of the effectualness of the Article 4 anti-slavery proviso set out under the European Convention on Human Rights, but it should be acknowledged that the bonuses of higher living standards and the strength of the rule of law also play their roles in its impediment. In brief it states that; 1. no one shall be held in slavery or servitude and 2. no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour. Subsection 3. (d) does warrant mentioning in that it allows for work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations, something of an underdeveloped quirk that goes unused due to the probability of tremendous opposition. In 2010 it was established by the ECHR that the trafficking of humans ought also to fall under Article 4, placing the burden on states to impose satisfactory measures in the regulation of businesses which may be playing host to trafficked workers. This and other similar premises were established in the case of Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, which involves a cabaret show, a seedy dance hall and Limassol Central Police Station.

Four years on and the framework for a logical and coherent policy is beginning to take shape in the UK with the publication of the government response to the report from the joint committee, published recently. The Home Secretary, who can’t single herself out as being free of her share of controversy as of late, commissioned broad ranging evidence sessions chaired by Frank Field MP, working in tandem with Baroness Butler-Sloss and Sir John Randall MP, accepting oral and written communications from a wide variety of contributors. The intended direction is that cases are prosecuted at a higher rate by establishing a more clear cut range of offences, currently standing at; slavery, exploitation and trafficking, with separate offences for child exploitation and child trafficking. Concerns have been raised relating to the harbouring of victims being ignored to date, one of the key issues raised in Rantsev. If found guilty of slavery or human trafficking life imprisonment is the recommended sentence. 

Hanging over the debate is one unrelenting issue; that there are many relationships in which to the casual observer coercion appears to be lacking. These are known as consent relationships in the legal sphere or invisible handcuffs colloquially. These tend to arise under three broad umbrella scenarios; diminished mental state, familial settings and in isolated (often but not solely migrant) communities.  It is argued that the offence of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, laid out in section 71 of the Coroner’s and Justice Act 2010 is vague and unworkable; and will likely be in line for repeal as it does not pay enough attention to the reality of the scenarios in which slavery occurs. It must be conceded that the need for dedicated legal professionals to spend hours searching for niche loopholes or the observation of next to imperceptible habits on which to attempt to secure a conviction isn’t an ideal scenario for such a grave criminal offence. It is for that reason that differentiating and defining the crimes to bring them into line with the aspired international standards in a manner which can be understood by the police and public alike is integral.

An omnipresent and intrusive governmental implementation, one which interferes unnecessarily in the lives of citizens, is likely to lead only to resentment at an inordinate cost with a minimal impact. There are no circumstances in which a self respecting government or civil service can take pride in the indiscriminate surveillance of its people, however, well targeted investigations are more than justifiable. Community involvement and a cross departmental policy implementation is preferential by far, specifically education and work and pensions in parallel with the home office and justice departments. Publicity campaigns and education are much needed most notably in first generation migrant communities as there are tangible differences in what is deemed acceptable in regards to societal criterion. To work for minimal pay in a small family business is the free market operating at its best and is preferable to living in third world conditions for zero pay. Where this becomes problematic is when it is at the expense of education or where it is under the threat of violent or sexual intimidation. 

There are Islamic practitioners, in the extreme minority it must be stated, who operate in an overtly intimidatory masculine or paternal fashion. To protect religious traditions or practices is legitimate and there is a lot to be said for the outcomes it can lead to in terms of strength of character, the valuing of family is after all very much in keeping with conservatism’s intrinsic beliefs, however, when it becomes overly dominant at the cost of individuality it becomes significantly harder to justify. Political and religious theory and traditions are different to inbreeding and slavery. Pakistan, India and Nepal are amongst the top five nations that play host to the slave trade with an estimated 14 million people enslaved in India alone. The trade in trafficked people is still a multi-billion pound industry in the 21st century, so to take further steps in its prevention is far from baseless. 

It is not just the Asian community which plays host to slavery. Four of the top ten countries in the continued trade of people are African, and Haiti is the second worst nation for it in the world. Russian and Eastern European countries are also far from perfect. Russia has an estimated half a million people in slavery, often run by organised crime syndicates; the organizatsiya. Iraq, Iran, Syria and Israel do have problems with slavery as displacement is so prevalent but do make it into the top half of the world’s rankings. The USA has approximately sixty thousand people in involuntary servitude, mostly migrant workers from Mexico who have been misled as to the conditions in which they’ll be working. Whilst there will always be lone perverted practitioners of sexual slavery it’s the industrialisation of the practice which can best be targeted. The focus of the British Bill is not currently preventative but on compensation and victim support, a direction which parliamentarians ought to consider modifying. 

The nature of consent relationships is the area of most contention as many believe it has not received suitable coverage in the debate to date. In psychological terms these often amount to cases of Stockholm syndrome (Sweden is in the ten best nations for prevention) or the culturally unchallenged subjugation of women. It is essential therefore that proper safeguards are put in place when handling allegations that these relationships amount to slavery or involuntary domestic servitude as there is the potential that the situation may boil over and result in more harm than good. That said, protection for victims is high on the agenda in the legislation as it stands; so when necessary education is made available and community engagement is ensured this ought not to be too great a concern.

It is important to distinguish further the nature of what constitutes slavery and what constitutes voluntary servitude. To come to Britain, be it legally or illegally, from a third world nation to find work is an aspiration held by many. If the work available is of minimal pay this is rarely of concern to the individual; equally so if the living conditions are below what westerners would consider par. Migrants working for below the minimum wage are the lifeblood of many impoverished communities and often count themselves lucky simply to not run the risk of malaria, dysentery or the whims of some barbaric dictator’s hordes. Explaining this to the privately schooled Westminster elite tends to be met with looks of bafflement, unless of course they employ migrant workers to dust the cupboards in their second home every fortnight, in which case they are more than aware of what goes on. 

With the very best intentions in the minds of many lawmakers the incessant niceties they take for granted  do mean they lack an understanding of the circumstances in which many in our society live. As such, a charge for the offence of exploitation should be used only in the direst of circumstances; where for example food is deprived or inhumane rather than uncomfortable conditions exist. The laws surrounding workers rights should be upheld, which may well amount to a criminal offence, however, to receive a life sentence for employing someone under substandard conditions is not the direction a grounded lawmaker should be  looking for the legislation to take. This is not to downplay the severity of some of the circumstances that are prevalent, but the number of people in the catchment bracket for what should be deemed slavery is in the low thousands. 

An underdeveloped preventative policy is likely to amount to curtain twitching or jumped up council sleuths rummaging through bins outside of a late night kebab shop convinced they’re on some covert operation in the name of national security, but this does remain preferable to merely dealing with the fallout. To be too blasé, a ‘let the chips fall where they may’ attitude, is not what anyone envisages as reasonable. Yet it is deeply flawed to suggest that some of the relationships that could fall under the draft legislation are enough to amount to slavery. The fear of being picked up by authorities could indeed drive the practices deeper underground; for example preventing exploited children receiving education or those working in sweatshops not being let off site; a point which has not been sufficiently covered in the debate to date. 

It should be admitted that the draft legislation as it stands is somewhat lacklustre. The infrequently decried Theresa May,  while not embroiled in cabinet infighting had this to say; “modern slavery is an appalling crime that has no place in society. It is an affront not just to the dignity and humanity of the people crushed by it but to every one of us.” If the bill is to be passed into law during the current parliamentary session it will require support from both sides of the political divide, and if held to be of ample standard could serve as model legislation elsewhere. With as many as 30 million estimated current victims of slavery worldwide any improvement should be welcomed but until a direction is agreed that doesn’t come at an extortionate rate and can be demonstrated beyond doubt to not worsen the situation in already tense communities, the debate should be allowed to proceed until enough of an equilibrium is struck.