Nick Grono is the CEO of The Freedom Fund, the world’s first private donor fund dedicated to ending modern slavery.
Modern slavery is a profitable criminal enterprise that generates $150 billion in profits per year. That’s more than ten times the $13 billion in profits that the global airline industry – BA, Emirates, United and all the other airlines – made last year.
Slavery may be illegal in every country around the world, but it exists everywhere, and touches us all through global supply chains: in West Africa enslaved children pick cocoa for our chocolate; in Thailand, Burmese migrants are forced to fish seafood that ends up on our supermarket shelves; in the Congo, men, women and children mine minerals for our smartphones; and slave picked cotton from Uzbekistan is used by exploited workers in Bangladesh to make our dirt cheap t-shirts.
In all, 30 million people are enslaved. The varieties of this criminal trade are nearly endless, but the essence is the same: violent and coercive exploitation of the most vulnerable human beings, who are deprived of their liberty for others’ personal gain.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Slavery has existed for millennia. It was a fact of life in the UK as recently as the 18th century. Yet something remarkable happened at the end of that century – a small, visionary band of abolitionists came together and, in just two decades, succeeded in ending the trans-Atlantic trade in human beings.
At a seminar at the Legatum Institute today, I am joined by Frank Field MP, who chairs the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on the Government’s Draft Modern Slavery Bill, and a group of academics and anti-slavery activists, to discuss the lessons for today’s anti-slavery efforts from the campaign led by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce to end the slave trade.
It’s a timely discussion. Due to efforts of committed NGOs around the world – the heirs of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade set up by the 18th century activists – Western consumers and policymakers have become increasingly aware that not only does slavery still exist, but that it lives among us. That knowledge is driving ever more insistent calls for action to end this crime against humanity.
What we need now is a new abolitionist movement to end slavery. And consumers, governments and businesses all have an important role to play in this new movement – that’s one of the key lessons from Clarkson’s 20 year campaign to end the slave trade.
The Coalition government has recognised this, and responded by introducing the Modern Slavery Bill. This is an important first step, and it positions the government to build on Wilberforce’s legacy and lead international efforts to combat this crime against humanity – but to show true leadership it will need to go further, and require business to live up to its responsibility to end slavery.
The government should amend its Modern Slavery Bill, currently before the Parliament, to require companies to be transparent about their efforts to respond to slavery, by – at very least – disclosing every year what efforts they have made to eliminate slavery from their operations and supply chains. This government is always reluctant to add to the regulatory burden on companies, and that’s understandable – but if there is ever a place for regulation, it is in the fight against slavery. This is not a heavy burden, as all responsible companies claim to take seriously their responsibility to ensure they have slave-free supply chains. It should not be a big ask for them to publicly document those efforts.
Slavery is illegal everywhere, it is morally abhorrent, and governments and businesses are beginning to take their responsibilities to end it more seriously. If there is one overarching lesson to take from the success of the 18th century activists, it is that – however insurmountable the task of eliminating slavery may appear – this evil can be defeated by a modern abolitionist movement that persuades business to meet its responsibility to end this crime.