Face our past by tackling modern slavery

Originally published by Bristol 24/7:


I moved to Bristol 20 years ago not knowing much about the city. One of the first things I discovered was that there was a fervent desire for the city to apologise for its linkages to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. No one disputes the fact that the city was partly built on the wealth of that appalling trade but it strikes me as somewhat frustrating that in the last 20 years there has been repeated calls to apologise and self-castigate. How many more times does the city have to apologise for the past? The present is even more shocking! There are more people held today in situations of modern slavery than the whole of the Transatlantic Slave Trade – estimates vary between 21-36 million.

The thing about continually apologising for the slave trade of the past is it shackles the city’s psyche and outlook. I’m constantly amazed that Bristol has a spectacular ability to not realise its full potential to be a world-leading city.

Whatever the transatlantic slavery trade did for Bristol, we must acknowledge that, at the time, it was a legal trade however repugnant it appears now. The vital difference today is modern slavery is illegal everywhere and it dwarfs the old legal chattel trade. It’s an industry, an illicit trade, worth a conservative $150bn profit per annum. Instead of being a city looking constantly backward why don’t we become a forward-looking city that wishes to lead the world in eradicating modern slavery?

Bristol, precisely because of its history, is in the perfect place to lead on this and deal with the self-imposed shackles of its past. Yes, we must learn the lessons of history, but we need to move on and no longer be defined just by our past but grasp the future.

We are already leading in some ways. In conjunction with Avon and Somerset Police Unseen lead an Anti-Slavery Partnership with 22 agencies working together to disrupt and investigate modern slavery across the city. This model is now being recognised nationally as the proactive response to the issues faced when dealing with modern slavery.

Unseen, has begun to put Bristol on the map with government and others as to how to deal with the issues: from survivor care, to training and equipping public agencies and businesses to recognise and respond to problems encountered, and influencing government by calling for and seeing the Modern Slavery Act come into effect.

Yet there is so much more we could do. What if collectively we took a stand to be a city where modern slavery was not able to exist? This would impact far wider than we may at first realise. It may affect the goods that we purchase, the services we use and the labour we rely on. Modern slavery is in essence a supply and demand trade.

One of the clauses in the Modern Slavery Act – the ‘Transparency in Supply Chains etc.’ Clause requires that large businesses report annually what they are doing to ensure that modern slavery doesn’t exist in its supply chains and business practices. We want to pilot with those businesses and the Universities based here in the West to work out a way to evidence how companies are improving tackling modern slavery year on year. Wouldn’t it be great if one day soon consumers could know that the businesses they are purchasing from are fully committed to ensuring modern slavery can’t exist?

By focussing on the future Bristol may be able to finally move on from its slave trading past and by leading the way be able to free itself and move forward.