Sunday, December 02, 2007

21st century slavery. Rahila Gupta

The UK's modern slavery shame
Rahila Gupta

Women's exploitation lies at the heart of a modern-day underclass
that keeps the machinery of civilised Britain well-oiled, writes

Rahila Gupta.

26 - 11 - 2007

In the UK, we are coming to the end of a year stuffed full with
events commemorating the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave
trade. Only a few of these events have acknowledged the hollowness of
these commemorations when slavery continues to thrive and affects
more people today than during the historic transatlantic trade. As
usual, it is women who bear the brunt of this inhuman trade. Although
the hidden nature of modern slavery makes the statistics unreliable,
there is no doubt that more women than men are trafficked. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty and are over-
represented among those trafficked into the UK for sexual
exploitation, for domestic work and for labour in the care sector. A
2004 US State Department report records that 70 percent of the
approximately 800,000 people trafficked across international borders
each year are women. The majority of these victims are forced into
the commercial sex trade. Non-sexual forced labour is made up of 44
percent men and boys, and 56 percent women and girls (International
Organisation of Labour, 2005).

21st century slavery

This article is the second in a series on openDemocracy marking the
"16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" from 25 November - 10
December, an annual mobilisation aimed at heightening global
awareness of violence against women

Also in openDemocracy on the 16 Days theme, part of our overall 50.50
coverage, a multi-voiced blog where women around the world contribute While researching my book Enslaved: The New British Slavery, I had no
pre-conceived ideas about the gender balance in the five stories I
would choose to tell. I ended up with two women, two girls and a man,
a proportion which is roughly representative of those enslaved here.
Farhia Nur, a devout Somali woman, was caught up in the civil war,
raped and forcibly married to her rapist. She escaped to Britain,
lost her application for asylum, went underground, had no money and
was forced into prostitution; Natasha, a Russian girl was trafficked
to Britain at the age of 17, raped and assaulted by her pimps, and
prostituted; Amber, an Asian woman was forced into a marriage,
imprisoned, starved and sexually assaulted by her husband and in-
laws; Naomi, an illiterate street child from Sierra Leone was brought
to London at the age of 15 to work as a domestic slave, ran away, was
picked up by a man who prostituted her, ran away again and discovered
that she was pregnant. Finally, Liu Bao Ren, a Chinese man was
smuggled in by the snakeheads (Chinese trafficking gangs), whose
brother died in the Dover 58 tragedy - in which 58 Chinese illegal
immigrants died in a lorry entering the UK - and worked long hours
for little or no pay in the construction industry under terrible
health and safety conditions.
They all had one thing in common: their immigration status was
uncertain. An individual is powerless while her/his passport is in
the hands of somebody else whether it is an ‘employer', a ‘spouse',
an ‘agent', a ‘trafficker', or indeed the government as in the case
of failed asylum seekers. The defining feature of modern slavery is
entrapment - physical, psychological and financial - often sustained
through violence. While no human being legally owns another human
being today, men, women and children continue to be bought and sold.
Current immigration legislation plays a central role in keeping
people trapped in slavery.
Apart from the stories in the book, there are thousands of others who
are enslaved in the production of our food, in the running of our
homes, the care of our elderly and disabled and scandalously, in
keeping our sex industry alive. The government argues that more
draconian immigration controls will stop the people smugglers and
traffickers. In fact, this strategy has failed. Perhaps it suits the
government to tighten controls: it creates a larger pool of easily
exploited ‘illegal' workers whose presence drives wages down. The
more I investigated this issue, the more I became convinced that only
the abolition of immigration controls will lift a large chunk of
people out of slavery in Britain. Each time controls are part-
liberalised in a piecemeal fashion (and that's not often) they create
further nooks and crannies in which injustice and slavery flourish. An open solution The debate around immigration is so hysterical that to raise the
issue of open borders is to invite ridicule. It is a widely held
belief that Britain will be inundated. However, this is not borne out
by the trends. In general, migration follows jobs. If the UK economy
is attracting migrants, it is because its economy is booming. We
already have open borders with Europe, with a total population of
half a billion people, and we have not been swamped. Despite
headlines in the popular press about the numbers of Polish people who
have arrived, most of them have been soaked up by a labour hungry
market. Even when there is a humanitarian crisis, most people flee to
the next town or just across the closest border. Despite the
horrendous living conditions created by the US and UK invasion of
Iraq, only 8000 Iraqis have sought asylum in Britain (only 20 per
cent of whom have been allowed to stay) as compared to 1 million in
Syria and 800,000 in Jordan.
Most mainstream debate on UK immigration concentrates on the needs of
the British economy, whether the migrants coming in to the country
match the needs of the economy and whether the walls that have been
put up to keep out ‘undesirables' are solid enough. Broader questions
which impact on immigration have not really been raised: British
multi-nationals, for example, displace communities in developing
countries in the process of building dams or mining for minerals and
generate refugees and economic migrants, some of whom may turn up on
our doorstep. As far as I am aware, no one has attempted to draw up a
balance sheet which measures the number of jobs generated and taxes
paid by these companies to the treasury against the immigrants who
arrive on British shores. Ditto with the defence industry which is
worth billions of pounds and where sales of arms are often made to
countries in conflict. We see the direct consequences of that policy
in the number of refugees claiming asylum.
We need the equivalent of a Stern review on climate change to explore
these broader questions and to examine the benefits and drawbacks of
immigration because the movement of peoples is an irresistible fact
of globalisation. It is estimated that Britain will need 500,000 new
workers entering the economy every year in order to sustain the
current pensions system. We need to add into the equation the number
of migrants who contribute to pensions and then do not stick around
to receive the benefits, the subsidies made by the third world in
terms of providing qualified migrants to the first world and the fact
that remittances by migrants is double British aid (an estimated £8
billion to £3.8 billion in international aid) - to drag this highly
poisoned debate a little closer to the centre ground.
While open borders may not completely eradicate slavery, it remains a
crucial weapon in the fight against slavery in Britain. When
Lithuania joined the EU, for example, the number of women being
trafficked into the sex trade increased. However, unlike other
slaves, Lithuanian women are now in no danger of deportation and have
the right to full protection of the state once they are rescued or
run away. We also need to criminalise the buying of sexual services
to make a dent in the number of women trafficked to Britain as
happened in Sweden and tighten employment laws so that employers who
exploit workers are penalised.
As the fourth richest country in the world which prides itself on its
respect for human rights, we can no longer ignore the human rights of
an underclass that keeps the machinery of civilised Britain well-oiled.

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