No-one is born a slave

What is modern slavery? The UK introduced the Modern Slavery Act into legislation in England and Wales in 2015, partly in response to the growing referrals of suspected cases into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The Act defines slavery as servitude and forced or compulsory labour. This incorporates a broad range of situations, including forced criminality; sexual exploitation; removal of organs; and securing services by force, threat or abuse, including from children and vulnerable people.

This article was first published in the Catholic Universe. The Universe is true to its mission of being “a light to guide the world, and a mirror to reflect it”. You may wish to consider taking out a subscription. Students/Alumni Members and Staff of St. Mary’s University can receive a special discount of 50% off the £80 standard annual subscription to the digital edition of the Universe Catholic Weekly publication. Just go to the website and enter the code STMARYS50 to get your weekly copy direct in your inbox. All subscribers receive a 10% discount in the online shop.

Potential victims are recruited through various methods: newspaper and internet adverts; immigration agencies; personal contacts; or family. Recruitment can take the form of a job offer, targeting vulnerable groups, for example homeless people. The ‘Boyfriend’ method, which is when an intimate relationship is established that includes an offer of a better life, is also used to trick victims who are then sold into slavery. People recruited are often marginalised, poor, vulnerable and have mental and or physical health problems, learning disabilities, and substance use issues. However, some victims come from stable backgrounds and are well educated.

In 2021, 12,727 children, women and men were referred to the NRM – the framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support – for criminal, labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, or a combination of these. Many of these victims are hidden in plain sight, in construction, agriculture, car washes and nail bars and remain invisible in the sex industry, drug trafficking trade and in domestic servitude.

In 2021, 12,727 children, women and men were referred to the NRM – the framework for identifying victims of human trafficking or modern slavery… According to the most recent statistics published by the Global Slavery Index in 2018, 49.6 million men, women and children are living in modern slavery worldwide.

Historically, slavery was accepted openly in society. The Code of Hammurabi, which introduced the legal status of a slave, reveals the inter-relationship of religion, law and slavery in its prologue. This code outlines a fully functioning slave system with 35 laws concerning slavery. All these laws are clear: a slave is not a real human being.

The idea of slavery being part of the natural order of societies was taken up by philosophers including Plato, who built a rationale for slavery based on the inherent inferiority of ‘barbarians’. His pupil Aristotle argued that slavery was good for both slave and master since each were achieving their true function. However, alternative ideas flourished which led to more humane treatment of slaves, within an emerging philosophy that maintained slavery was against “natural” law.

Despite this more humane philosophy, slavery continued to thrive in the expansion of various empires. To support this expansion, three main foundations of institutionalised slavery were established: an armed military that could use violence to enslave, a business market for slaves, and a religious elite that provided divine approval for slaves. Whilst most religions were against enslavement of their own denomination, so no Christian could enslave another Christian, they were quite content to support slavery in both policy and trade. The growth of the transatlantic slave trade attests to this and was supported by church and state in all major countries involved in the trade.

However, it was also religious movements that promoted change. The Protestant Reformation, with its ideas of equal citizenship played a part in sowing the seeds of the abolition movement. Adam Ferguson, a Scottish philosopher argues that “no one is born a slave; because everyone is born with his original rights”. The Catholic late scholastics made similar arguments in disputes about slavery in the developing Spanish empire. And, of course, Wilberforce was motivated by strong religious convictions.

Slave importation was banned in the US in 1808, although the southern US continued to grow its slave population by natural increase. But, just as the slave trade had grown, so did American Slave resistance. The abolition movement grew enormously over the following years. Support towards ending slavery came mainly through the publication of first-hand accounts of slavery, including the intimate and detailed accounts of its brutal reality.

Survivor Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in the US in 1838 and published his book Narrative in 1845. In an address entitled “International Moral Force can destroy Slavery’, delivered in 1846, he stated: ‘A slave is one who is to all intents and purposes a marketable commodity—common goods and chattels”. The notion of a human being as a marketable commodity is common to both historical and modern slavery. His appeal for ‘moral force’ corresponded with abolitionists’ pleas at that time, which were based on moral principles rather than economic or political arguments.

By the early 20th Century, slavery became illegal in Europe, North and South America, and many other countries followed suit, outlawing the slave trade, then the practice of slavery itself. In 1833, Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, ordering gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies. However, despite this Act, and various other pieces of international legislation introduced in the 20th Century, slavery in its various forms persists across the world.

Estimates of victims of slavery in the UK stood at 10,000-13,000 in 2013. Due to its hidden nature, it has been hard to gauge actual figures. According to the most recent statistics published by the Global Slavery Index in 2018, 49.6 million men, women and children are living in modern slavery worldwide.

The Catholic Church has been particularly outspoken about slavery since Pope Francis pronounced it as an “open wound on the body of contemporary society”. As part of this response, the Santa Marta Group comprised of Bishops and law enforcement, was established to tackle slavery internationally. In the UK, the charity, Caritas Bakhita House is part of a network of charities and organisations, including the Clewer Initiative, the Santa Marta group and the Bakhita Centre. The Bakhita Centre was established at St Mary’s University as a result of a suggestion by our own Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. St Mary’s University then established an MA and Certificate programme in Human Trafficking, Modern Slavery and Organised Crime which supports many professionals and volunteers working in this area.

Organisations such as Caritas Bakhita House alongside many other charities, support victims and survivors of modern slavery in their journey of recovery and re-integration. Through this support, they ensure that survivors, human beings once treated as commodities, are empowered towards restoring their humanity.


Photo by Hussain Badshah on Unsplash

Never miss a post - subscribe to updates to the blog (English language only) here

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.
Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Author: Carole Murphy

Published: 16th December 2022

Posted in:

© Catholic Social Thought 2020