We have been marking Anti-Slavery Day in the UK. doing for six years.
This may seem a little strange. After all, the trade in slaves was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1807 and the keeping of slaves in 1833. This had been the life’s work of the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce, who was the Member of Parliament for Hull.
In our time, we find it hard to believe that until the 19th century, people in all walks of life and of all philosophies and creeds, could see nothing wrong with slavery. They could look unmoved at the sight of fellow human beings in chains and under the lash. They believed that if slavery was done away with, the economy would crash.
Even in the United States, where the Declaration of Independence spoke about all people being created equal, they had to fight a civil war in 1861 before all the black slaves were set free.
We may well wonder, therefore, why we need an Anti-Slavery Day in this country if slavery has been abolished for more than 100 years.
The reason becomes clear if we think about what it means to be a slave and why conditions in modern Britain make it possible. Slavery exists whenever people are treated as if they were property and not fellow human beings. Property can be bought and sold and exchanged. There are circumstances in our communities now in which people are treated just like that – as if they were someone’s property.
This is also something that becomes easier to do because of the globalised world we live in. Increasing numbers of people are being trafficked across the world and turned into modern-day slaves.
They may be from poor communities, or vulnerable in some way. They, or their families, may be in debt to the traffickers or they may simply be frightened and bullied.
In this country the police find that people have been brought here as domestic slaves or for sexual purposes. Many work in low-paid jobs, but then are forced to hand over all their wages to pay for their poor accommodation.
Across South Yorkshire we have in some places the sorts of conditions in which modern slavery can find a footing – houses that are cheap for the traffickers to buy and low-paid, manual jobs where few skills are needed, but hours are long.
Modern slavery is every bit as pernicious as those haunting images of men, women and children shackled together on those British ships from Africa to the Caribbean.
The only difference now is that it is hidden.