A new Anti-Slavery Charter: how to combat slavery in the 21st Century
Unionised workforces cannot be enslaved.
This is because of the simple fact that a unionised workforce is harder to exploit by even the most unscrupulous employers. But that self-evident truth is one that many who profess themselves concerned with the struggle against forced labour frequently overlook.
There seems a desire amongst some sections of society to depoliticise the struggle against slavery, to render it merely a criminal justice matter. But slavery is, and always has been fundamentally a matter of the political economy. It arises from the laws, policies and customs that human society uses to govern the way it conducts trade, development, employment and business.
The enslavement of tens of thousands of South Asian workers in construction and domestic work across the Arabian peninsula is directly facilitated by the system of tied visas that diverse governments across the region have established to empower employers to prevent workers from leaving the country or even quitting their jobs. This situation is exacerbated by the restrictions on freedom of association that prevent the formation of democratic trades unions which would have the capacity to fight to transform the situation from exploitation to decent work.
Anti-Slavery International recognises slavery as a political issue and a human rights one. History shows that this has always been the case, that slavery is about power, and the exclusion from power of those the powerful wish to exploit and enslave. This is a matter that the trade union movement has also recognised. So it is no accident that the anti-slavery and trade union movements have been allied since their inception in their common struggle against exploitation and for decent work.
The Anti-Slavery Charter, which Anti-Slavery International has recently published, reasserts the political nature of slavery by outlining the elements necessary for its eradication. These are not new. Rather they have been proven in the hard school of history.
Alongside freedom of association to allow the formation of democratic trades unions and an end to immigration rules that render migrants more vulnerable to exploitation, the Charter sets out a broad range of complementary measures that, if implemented, would begin to transform national and international political economies from ones which facilitate slavery into ones that empower those currently vulnerable to slavery to resist. These additional measures include: establishing effective rule of law so that the laws and policies that outlaw slavery are properly implement; ending discrimination; outlawing forced marriage; and achieving universal provision of quality and appropriate education, particularly for those children vulnerable to slavery.
The Charter has been endorsed by the TUC and the International Trade Union Confederation. It is my hope that this Charter will be endorsed by the entire trade union movement as a guide for its continued struggle against slavery and for decent work.