It’s 2018 and gone are the days of the slavery as presented to us in the cinema from the Egyptian times of Moses or America. Yet slavery is still around us and we’re probably accomplices without knowing.
Felicity Lawrence, a special correspondent for the Guardian and author of the bestselling exposés of the food business, Not on the Label and Eat Your Heart Out writes about the perils of modern slavery.
In a pertinent opinion piece, she asks how did slavery, which we thought was abolished, reach into our everyday consumption? While it is quite right that companies should have their reputational feet held to the fire for abuse that arises out of their economic model, there are also uncomfortable truths here for affluent consumers of personal services.
Things that were until recently luxuries – manicures, clothes that change fashion every few weeks, regular holiday breaks to hotels, eating out frequently, having your car hand-valeted, using manual labour to dig out a basement under your house – are now presented to us as affordable, everyday even. Where they have become so, it is in large part thanks to other people being badly paid at best, or victims of modern slavery at worst. The squeezed middle has been bought off by the illusion that it can share the consuming habits of those with runaway incomes at the top; but it can’t – not without squeezing those further down the chain.
She adds that in a world where the state has often absented itself from the enforcement of employment law, and where so many human interactions are reduced to financial exchanges at whatever rate the market will take, people have become commodities to use or sell. When competition and austerity are king, it is every man and woman for themselves and their family. Too often, we close our eyes and try to protect our own.
If you are being offered a service for much less than you would expect to pay for it, someone is being exploited
Referring to more specific issues, she argues that people-traffickers target the vulnerable – including those with learning disabilities or raised in care, homeless people, those with alcohol and drug problems or previous convictions. They are the people easiest to control and least likely to attract sympathy. Anti-immigration sentiment has encouraged people to see these victims as foreign, as “other”. How else to explain why neighbours, work colleagues and customers so often fail to notice modern slavery?