The day after Anti-Slavery Day

As someone who has worked in the Anti-Slavery sector for the last 10 years I have mixed feelings about ‘Anti-Slavery Day’. I am encouraged by the attention and focus given to the issue but I am philosophical about the fact that for Unseen, our staff team and those working in this field across a multitude of different agencies, today is no different to any other day that we work towards a world without slavery.

Anti-Slavery Day was brought into being through the great work of Anthony Steen CBE and provide an opportunity to raise awareness of human trafficking and modern slavery, and encourage government, local authorities, companies, charities and individuals to do what they can to address the problem. It certainly is a day to celebrate those who work in the field, to recognise the good works done by all, the progress made as well as the work that is still to be done.

As part of Anti-Slavery Day activities, I was invited to sit on a panel last night at Wells Cathedral at an event for organised by the Clewer Initiative and a question posed from the floor -

‘Do you accept that each of you are complicit in the facilitation of slavery?’

The answer, simply, is ‘yes’. I have had to accept that the clothes I wear, the food I buy, and technology I ‘can’t live without’ and the services I purchase are likely to have elements of slavery and exploitation in them. I may not see the exploitation directly and I may rationalise it away with thoughts like ‘if they didn’t have a job in that factory/field they would be worse off’ but the reality is I know my purchasing decisions hold power and the reality is that, for me, this equates to the potential of people being exploited. I know that I can’t get a new t-shirt for £3, the cotton picked, transported, spun, weaved, the t-shirt designed, created, made, packaged, transported – not a chance! So, yes, I am complicit – but are you?

Arguably the choices we have currently to source ethical items, goods and services are limited and costly. Financially some will not be able to afford them and some will choose not to. Am I willing to curb my spending, have less and pay more for products that are working towards a slavery free supply chain, or am I so stuck in the consumer mentality of the West that I will always be drawn to a bargain and justify my choices?

In my mind slavery is an issue that is born out of the fact the world is not functioning and people are not behaving in the way they should be; inextricably linked to our views on migration, gender equality, access to education and violence against women. We don’t treat each other as equal, we are happy to assume that ‘the other’ is happy working in poor and dangerous conditions, out of sight, out of mind, using different cultures, religions and nationalities as our justification for why it is ‘OK’ for people to not have what we do.

I would suggest we have lost our way and no longer understand what things cost to make and produce, and the impact that has on those involved in their production. We justify our purchasing decisions based on affordability and a lack of suitable and viable alternatives – however what if we all made a stand and stopped shopping in certain places, buying certain products, being wooed by cheap and disposable items and amazed by the cheapness of labour? What if we started asking questions of the suppliers? What if we held suppliers to account? What if we didn’t view items as disposable? What if we boycotted those who couldn’t answer our questions? What if we actively considered where we spent our money? What if we cut back on all the ‘things’ in our lives? Can we as individuals and communities use our freedom and power to change the world? It has been done before. Are you willing to take a stand, and make yourself and the lifestyle you have become accustomed to uncomfortable in order to promote a seismic change in our world that views everyone as equal and ensures that people don’t have to take unnecessary and unacceptable risks in order to feed their families and survive?

Community and individual action is of course only part of the story, but I think it is an important part. I would encourage you to think about how your life choices may be linked to slavery and exploitative practices – this may not be a pleasant or comfortable process, as you expose all the elements in your life that may rely on the exploitation of another. But unless you engage with this issue and work out where it infiltrates your life, how will you be able to make the decision to do something about it or not?

I am hugely motivated by seeking justice and equality for all, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, nationality or any other label or category we assign people to - it is exhausting and requires me to challenge myself and my habits and behaviours continuously. Do I get it right all the time? No. Will I be swayed by a bargain bottle of wine, a cheap t-shirt, a new mobile phone deal? Probably. But I am committed to learning about the issue and challenging my own and others behaviours. I will continue to put two fingers up to slavery, and both professionally and personally commit to doing what I can to tackle this crime and human rights violation.

So on the day after Anti-Slavery day, and for the next 364 days until Anti-Slavery Day 2018, at Unseen we will work tirelessly to continue the efforts to tackle this crime. We will continue to:

· provide 24/7 support to vulnerable survivors;

· answer calls and offer advice on the Modern Slavery Helpline; and

· work with Government to implement effective survivor support.

I would encourage you to join us in whatever way you can, so in years to come on the 18th October we can look at a country and a world that has finally put an end to Modern Slavery.

All thoughts, views and reflections are Kate’s own.