The UK, to its shame, led the world in the 17th & 18th centuries in commercialising slavery, through, in particular, the transatlantic human trafficking trade from West Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean, along with other European countries. To its credit, in the 19th century it was the first of the European countries to abolish the trade , with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, that supplied the slaves, or those in the Americas that received these slaves. The effect of this piece of legislation was to formally free the 800,000 Africans who were then the “legal property” of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners. The terms for their freedom were still onerous. They received no compensation, and were still compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further 4 years after their supposed liberation. There was no compensation for the victims, but the slavers were compensated, with £16 billion (US$20 billion), in todays money, valuing each slave at £20,000 ($25,000).
This amounted to the biggest bailout in British history (save for the bailout during the 2008 banking crisis), and represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. Arguably, this was a less costly approach than the one taken 30 years later by the US government which led to the Civil War, the results of which still reverberate, and have not resolved the legacy of slavery and civil rights in the United States to this day.
Centuries later, and now illegal, forms of slavery in the modern world have grown and become established, and it is believed to be one of the world’s largest international illicit industries. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that the total illegal profits obtained from the estimated 50 million forced labour victims worldwide amounts to over US$150 billion per year (28 million forced into labour, 22 million forced into marriages, and an increase of 10 million between 2016 and 2021).
In response, the United Nations has included the need to eradicate MS/HT in their sustainable development goals in 2015, expected to be achieved over the next 15 years by 2030. The 17 Goals are included in Target 8.7 – “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.” The year 2023 also marks half-time for the 2030 Agenda.
The same year in 2015, and almost 200 years after the UK abolished slavery it passed the Modern Slavery Act, determined to once again tackle an unconscionable trade, which, whilst illegal, was growing, and as a result, was being largely ignored. A rising tide of concern had been growing and a consensus for action had been established, not least based on the work of many, including the Centre for Social Justice who published a ground-breaking report on modern slavery in 2013 – “It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery”. The headline recommendation, a new “Modern Slavery Act”, was taken up by the Conservative Government under Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May, and the Act came into law in 2015
For a summary of the work in the Special Report on Modern Slavery/Human Trafficking in the UK see the below 5 charts.