Review by Susan Jappie
In this ground-breaking book, Rahila Gupta combines a compelling analysis of the phenomenon of modern slavery - its causes in global capitalism and suggestions for possible solutions. Five case studies illustrate the variety of forms it can take using the subjects own voices to tell their stories. The ‘push’ factors that drive people to desperate attempts to build a new life are all the results of growing inequalities: grinding poverty stimulated by climate change leading to natural disasters of flooding and drought; wars that produce refugees, and the activities of the transnational corporations, like Shell in Nigeria where local populations were uprooted after the Ogoni protests.
As a campaigner who works with Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that helps women escaping domestic violence, Rahila was able to interview the people featured here in great depth so that we are drawn into their lives. Fahria from Somalia was sent to England where she was treated as a prisoner and forced to perform menial tasks; Naomi from Sierra Leone and Natasha from Russia , both under-aged girls who were forced into sexual and domestic slavery, Amber from India who was forced into an arranged marriage where as a ‘foreigner’ she was abused, and Lui from China, in bondage to the ‘Snakeheads’. It is impossible to read of these experiences without feeling sympathy for our fellow human beings.
She challenges the reader to consider the possibility that Slavery did not disappear with the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade 200 years ago, but continues even within the UK today. Immigrants are trafficked or smuggled into the country as ‘commodities’ for the sex trade and sources of profit for the gang-masters in the dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs that indigenous workers prefer to avoid. Rahila suggests that through the current Immigration Legislation, which denies the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants without documentation, the government colludes in their enslavement by treating them as ‘non-people’.
Slavery can be defined as the total control and enforced labour of human beings. But although the estimated number of slaves now exceeds what it was 200 years ago, it is hidden because no longer acceptable. The desire for profit and rising inequality endemic in global corporate capitalism has created the conditions of poverty, war and climate change which force people to migrate. As ‘outsiders’, immigrants are seen as ‘other’ and although the government finds it uneconomic to stop ‘illegals’ entering the country, they do not protect them from human rights abuses. There is now recognition of the need to take action on ‘trafficking’ to mark the bicentenary, but there is no sympathy for people who have been smuggled into the country, because they are seen to have chosen to become ‘economic’ migrants. The author suggests that most of us cannot empathise with the fear and hunger that drives all these people to leave their countries of origin, but the narratives tell of the circumstances leading to their journeys to the UK, and their continued enslavement to pimp or employer once they arrive. Debt bondage is an ever-increasing cause of modern slavery.
This book calls for action to confront the causes of modern slavery and bring about changes in the government’s attitude towards the immigrants we rely on to support our economy. At present immigrants without documentation are treated as criminals and kept in detention centres which are worse than prisons. We recruit nurses and doctors who have been trained at the expense of other countries, but refuse them the chance to come over here to train. A possible solution for the anathema of our government’s collusion in the enslavement of those destitute and disempowered people, is to change its immigration laws. While we may think that Rahila is over optimistic in her hope that the government can do more than a leopard and change its spots by a superficial tweeking of legislation, this book goes a long way to awakening us to the connection between our present way of life based on consumerist values, and the urgent need for change.