“But We Have No Slaves in the UK”

By Giovy Drysdale-Anderson
Economics & English Student 

As it was Anti-Slavery Day earlier this week, this is an ideal time to reflect on the issue of Modern Day slavery and assess the role the UK ought to play in fighting this global issue. 

One of the earliest recorded cases of slavery in Scotland is the 1687 decision of Reid V Scot of Harden in which the Scottish Court of Session denied a showman’s request for a runaway Scottish girl, referred to simply as ‘the Tumbling Lassie’, to be returned to him. The man presented a contract of sale signed by the girl’s mother as proof of his possession. However, this document was not legally recognized by the Court, his claim of ownership was rejected, and the girl was declared free. What is perhaps more fascinating than this positive outcome is the case report which contains the astonishing claim that “we have no slaves in Scotland.” This statement can be deemed ironic on two levels: First of all, the girl was clearly a slave, regularly forced to dance on a stage as part of the man’s show; and secondly, the following century would bring many to slavery in British colonial plantations.

Sadly, centuries later many of us still struggle to recognize that there are indeed slaves in the United Kingdom and wonder whether fighting this evil should be a priority for our country. The University of Hull Wilberforce Institution for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation estimates that there are 45.8 million people trapped in slavery around the world – 13,000 of which are enslaved in the United Kingdom. The sad reality is that even if the UK is not considered a ‘hub’ for slavery to the extent of countries such as India, Nigeria, or Thailand, it is still an active participant in what is largely an international issue; one with extensive trafficking networks spreading across geographical borders.

The statement “we have no slaves in Scotland,” reflects the naïve belief that as long as slavery is not occurring on our land or is out of the spotlight, it is not our responsibility to fight it.

Looking at the issue through the lens of economic theory is one useful way to get to the root of the problem. Like any other market, the number of enslaved individuals is large because is a large demand for slaves. Therefore, until enforcement is forceful enough to make slaveholding more risky than lucrative, it will continue to remain a reality in our society, with tragic human and ethical costs.

Since the world has become so interconnected and interdependent, slavery must be examined in a global context. There are already many international NGOs working to rescue victims of sex trafficking from brothels and red light districts and release child slaves from forced labour. Meanwhile, other organizations focus on restoring rescued victims from the serious emotional, mental, spiritual and physical damage of slavery. However, it is also the responsibility of local governments to take concrete steps towards ending this evil; policy makers have a role to play and local police have a duty to enforce these policies. Most importantly, countries must support one another in this matter. Such a complex issue must be tackled from a variety of angles and prioritize on international cooperation, if it is to be effectively eradicated.

And what has the UK done in the past few years to tackle this? The Department of State 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) declares the UK a tier 1 nation – a country whose governments fully comply with the minimum standards of trafficking Victims Protection Act’s, TVPA – but also one that is “a source, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour, including domestic servitude.”

Since 2009, the UK National Crime Agency has operated the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework by which suspected cases of slavery in the UK are reported and victims are supported. Once individuals are recognized by the NRM as victims, they are then admitted into a 45-day program of recovery with access to accommodation, health care and counseling.

2010 saw the creation of UK Anti-Slavery Day on October 18th, a designated day to raise awareness of modern slavery and and inspire governments, businesses and individuals to take action. The Anti-Slavery Day has also been a brilliant opportunity for organisations to fundraise while educating the nation about this growing issue.

Another major step in the UK’s fight against Modern Day Slavery was the establishment of the Modern Day Slavery Act of 2015 by Theresa May while she was Home Secretary. Requiring large corporations in the UK to annually publish a statement outlining their plan to ensure there is no slavery in their supply chains, the Act also establishes the UK’s first anti-slavery commissioner to monitor work in the UK, clearly spells out the sentence of those convicted of the crime – from fines to life-imprisonment, depending on the severity of the case – and issues preventive risk orders aimed at dismantling trafficking networks.

Such a complex issue must be tackled from a variety of angles and prioritize on international cooperation, if it is to be effectively eradicated.

Finally, Theresa May has shown that as Prime Minister she intends not only to retain her strong stance against slavery but also to take further steps that increase the UK’s role in tackling what she referred to as “the great human rights issue of our time.” May’s plan includes a £33 million budget set aside towards the fight against Modern Day slavery and the establishment of a new taskforce to focus specifically on this issue.

Some would say that the United Kingdom has set an international benchmark, one that will hopefully bring other nations to follow in our footsteps, but others would argue that we have not yet done enough. Regardless, recognizing that we do indeed have tens of thousands of individuals in the UK trapped in slavery, numerous present-day Tumbling Lassies, and that we therefore ought to take this issue seriously, is a very good beginning.

Featured image: “Slave Labor (Bunting Boy)” by Banksy photo from Daily Wood

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