Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Where is a Wilberforce to outlaw modern slavery?

Today Downing Street will open its doors to the successors of William Wilberforce – the campaigners against the new slavery which in numbers at least is far greater and far more profitable than the trade parliament outlawed in 1807. David Cameron will host a reception where he will meet Marina Begonia who runs Justice for Domestic Workers. On Monday in the Commons she was awarded the Anti-Slavery Medal 2011 and in her acceptance speech promptly launched into an attack on Home Office proposals which will remove rights from overseas domestic workers making them more vulnerable to sexual and other abuses by employers.

Her speech, which left immigration minister Damien Green squirming and looking at this feet as she politely told him his policy was making matters worse, sums up the dilemma of the anti-trafficking campaign. The gap between the desire to combat the new slavery and the willingness of policymakers to fashion effective tools to reduce the trade is getting wider.

Yesterday,  ECPAT, the NGO which campaigns against child trafficking took MPs out on the Thames to admire six women activists in the boat in which they will row across the Atlantic to highlight the problem of trafficking. Fiona Mactaggart MP launched her ‘Service not Servitude’ report on the abuse of domestic workers from abroad. The Buy Responsibly campaign organised  events on the in Trafalgar Square and the actor Nicholas Gage hosted a fashion show to get women to buy garments made free of trafficked labour. Anti-Slavery, which was one of Britain’s first-ever NGOs, dating back to 1823, still campaigns with style and energy. It is now at the heart of an impressive network of organisations which seek to highlight trafficking and the new forms of slavery from child labour to massage parlour teenagers. Nearly every international agency in the world from the OSCE to the ILO as well as various UN bodies have produced voluminous reports on the problem and drawn up action programmes on what needs to be done.

Yet despite all this well-meaning activity, trafficking is growing, child labour is growing, and there is no end to the import of adolescent girls to serve the insatiable desire of British males to seek sex for the price of a soccer ticket. The UN estimates the number of slaves at 27 million worldwide. Sex trafficking figures are caught in crossfire. Some deny the phenomenon exists and insist all prostituted girls and women are willing sex-trade workers. The Metropolitan Police reckon there are 2,000 brothels in London alone. ‘The new Naughty Brunette London is Eastern European, 22yo, 5ft 8, lives in Edgware Road W2’  was on offer via Google last week. Many of our cheap clothes, food, and sports gear comes courtesy of child and indentured labour despite all the efforts of Fair Trade campaigners.

The government does not help with the initial attempts to block the EU Directive on Trafficking or its refusal to support the ILO Convention on Domestic Servants. The police and CPS do not help with the abysmally low level of convicted traffickers. The problem of grooming with taxi drivers taking young teenage girls to be groomed and used as money-making sex machines is not one that members of some communities want openly to address. Despite a new law in 2009 making it a crime to pay for sex with a coerced prostituted woman or girl, no men have been named and shamed with court appearances. Some academic feminists do not help with their campaign of denial that sex slave trafficking really exists or the proposition that being a prostituted woman is no different from being a waitress or office cleaner. The campaign is cross-party and involves a wide network of NGOs with an uneasy alliance between feminists and churches who share a common goal of highlighting trafficking. Sir Anthony Steen, the former Tory MP, chairs the Human Trafficking Foundation and inspires all.

But the plain fact is that trafficking is now an integral part of modern capitalism. We like cheap clothes, we like cheap holidays, and we like cheap labour to look after the elderly in care homes. Banks make huge profits from trafficking. Eurosceptics are uneasy about supporting EU work in this. And, unbelievably, the DfID secretary, Andrew Mitchell, boasted at the Conservative Party conference that he was cutting support for the International Labour Organisation because of Tory hate of trade unions even if among the most exploited are children and low-wage workers moved from nation to nation or within nations.

Labour has a golden chance to make itself the champion of the global anti-trafficking campaign as the party, unlike the coalition, does not or should not have hang-ups about supporting worker rights, and strong supranational action by the EU or ILO.

But in the end the real problem lies with men. As MPs, civil servants, professors and police officers we  find endless excuses to blame everyone else for the problem except the man who pays the money to sustain the demand. In Sweden, the law has been changed so that men not women are criminals if money is exchanged for sex. As a result the number of men thinking that money buys penetration has dropped by half as have the number of prostituted women in Sweden. In neighbouring Denmark and Finland, the trafficking numbers as well as the on and off-street levels of prostituted women have gone up.

So Sweden offers a way out of the dilemma. Making men responsible for paying for sex and focusing on the demand, not the supply side, of modern slavery is as revolutionary a concept as the campaign Wilberforce launched 220 years ago. But where is a new Wilberforce when you need him?
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister. He is writing a book on sex slave trafficking.


Photo: IraGelb

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Denis MacShane MP

is a former Europe minister. His biography of François Mitterrand was published in 1982, and in 1985 he wrote a Fabian pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour

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