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Slavery - the terrible truth

Two publications this week have indicated that a lot more needs to be done to stop slavery in Britain.

The first was an article by Martin Bentham, the Home Affairs Editor of the Evening Standard. He reports that “law enforcers identified 5,145 potential victims of modern slavery last year, up 35% on the previous 12 months”. The terrible truth is that the real figure is many times more than that.

Modern slavery includes forced domestic service, exploitive labour and prostitution. Home Office statistics suggest that “a typical case of sexual exploitation leads to 388 rapes, 407 other sexual offences and 34 violent crimes being committed against each victim. Horrific though that is, the largest number of modern slaves are victims of forced labour, working for next to nothing in most communities. Car wash and nail bars are the obvious examples close to us all but recent cases have also included farm labouring and work in the construction industry.

Theresa May did her best to tackle slavery when she was Home Secretary steering through the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 but a report out this week says “the Home Office has no means of monitoring progress or knowing if its Modern Slavery Strategy is working and achieving value for money” from its £4.3billion expenditure. Criminal organisations have hitherto been smuggling people into the UK mostly from Eastern Europe, Vietnam and Nigeria but they shift their operations to stay ahead of the National Crime Agency’s intelligence gathering.

The 2015 Act was not only concerned with slavery in the UK but required businesses with a turnover of £36 million per annum to publish an annual statement of the steps taken to ensure that there is no slavery involved in their supply chains. The Home Office has adopted a hands-off approach and has relied on NGOs, investors and consumers to monitor compliance.  Only an estimated 30% of businesses required to make the statement have done so. It is also reported that police forces vary in the seriousness with which they treat modern slavery and only 6% of crimes recorded in 2016-17 led to prosecutions.

This half-hearted response will particularly cause distress amongst Christians who understand that human beings are made in the image of God. Everyone is entitled to be treated with the respect this requires which makes slavery a great evil. Some might object that St Paul’s letter to Philemon seems to be relaxed about slavery. He sends Philemon’s run-away slave Onesimus back to him and makes no explicit suggestion that Philemon should give him his freedom. Paul would have known that at least a third of the empire were slaves and freeing them all would have caused social and economic chaos but a careful reading of Paul’s letter to Philemon suggests his real motive.

The Apostle calls Onesimus his son and says he is “very dear to me”. He would have liked to keep him in Rome but recognises that he should return to his owner. He wants Philemon to receive Onesimus as “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” (v15) For Paul the reconciliation between God and his human creatures achieved by Jesus’ death and resurrection shaped his own life and his relationships. If we all thought like that, ending the continuing presence of slavery in Britain and the world today, 185 years after William Wilberforce’s battle to end the slave trade, would be a passionate priority.

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