Modern day slavery

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On Saturday 12th November, a number of Amnesty International groups in the North hosted their annual regional conference, which, this year, was held in Liverpool. The theme for the conference was modern slavery, which was discussed by an array of expert speakers, panel discussions, and a Q&A. There was also an exciting street action that gave us a glimpse of life as a victim of human trafficking, as well as a variety of workshops that covered advocacy, the death penalty, and Syria 360. I attended the event as a media support officer for Amnesty International, but learning about modern slavery was thought-provoking from a student standpoint as well.

According to the Stop The Traffik website, human trafficking is “the recruitment or movement of persons, by means of the threat or use of force, deception or coercion for the purpose of exploitation.” The exploitation of people is driven by a number of factors, including “the demand for cheap goods cheap labour, cheap sex, and there’s an insatiable demand that causes questions for society as a whole,” as noted by Andrew Wallis, founder and chief executive of the anti-slavery charity Unseen.

Human trafficking is a rising phenomenon in the UK. In fact, the number of human trafficking victims has risen by a drastic 245% over the past five years, according to official figures. The National Referral Mechanism, a government safeguarding framework that aims to protect the victims of human trafficking, have released data showing that 3,266 people were victims to modern slavery in the last year. These shocking figures have promoted further action by charities, and MPs are calling for police officers to do more to tackle the pressing issue.

Back in 2013, Theresa May (Home Secretary at the time) launched new legislation that resulted in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The effectiveness of this Act was questioned and examined by the first keynote speaker of the day, Alex Batch, who is co-director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery at the University of Liverpool. A strength of the Modern Slavery Act is its inclusion of businesses in the debate, as it requires businesses to report on their efforts to combat modern slavery. We were told that, as consumers, it is important that we read these reports and call on corporations to do more to tackle slavery in their supply chains; words alone are not enough. Being a university student, I feel that I have the resources and support necessary to mobilise campaigns against the use of slavery to manufacture products, or at least to research the good/bad practices of companies that I buy from, so that I know which brands to avoid.

The second keynote speaker, Annette Mawdsley, who leads the Liverpool Stop The Traffik group, gave an eye-opening and chilling account of the extent of human trafficking across the world and specifically the UK. Anette debunked many myths that are perpetuated around slavery. She particularly emphasised the fact that slavery is not confined to the developing world. In fact, the UK is currently fourth for people being trafficked and is third on the list for minors. Therefore, it is important that we understand what human trafficking is and make ourselves aware of the signs. Living on campus or in the small town of Lancaster may make us feel as though we are in a bubble, but this is certainly not the case. There are many instances of students being preyed upon, such as when we are looking for work or on nights-out, or even by people within our university community. Frida Farrell became a victim when she was looking for work after graduating in London, and has released an award winning film, Selling Isobel, depicting her experiences. She explained that students are at risk, regardless of their “nationality, proficiency in English and financial means”. Luckily, there are a number of easy ways to stay safe, which can be found on the Stop The Traffik website.

In the afternoon, all of the delegates were herded through the streets of Liverpool by a group of talented young actors from the creative arts company, Switching Gears. After being ordered about concentration-camp style by the characters wearing signs saying ‘Authority’, we were frog-marched to Church Street where we were roped together and witnessed a drama about slavery in the past and today. The action included a scene in which a young female ‘slave’ was forced to strip down to her underwear and dowsed with water as a punishment by her handlers in front of bemused passers-by. The delegates and members of the public then wrote comments showing their thoughts about modern slavery on a large banner. Switching Gears Director Shannen Merwick said after the event, “the action was to draw attention to the involvement of high street stores like M&S and H&M in modern slavery through their supply chains and we aimed to do this by shocking and stirring up people when they were off their guard.”

Overall, the conference was enlightening as it highlighted the way in which slavery has evolved over the past few centuries into its current forms. The inspiring action portion of the event motivated me to become more aware of business’ use of slavery and to tackle it where I can. As a student, I am also a little less naïve about my safety, and I feel well-equipped to deal with any potential signs or threats.

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