In our calendar of prayer for today we are asked to remember and commemorate the British politician, MP, Christian, philanthropist and social reformer William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who campaigned to abolish the slave trade in Britain and across the British Empire.
He worked with others to try to completely abolish the slave trade and by doing so enabled legislation to be passed by Parliament that led to the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
However, while the nature of slavery has changed at least in some forms since the time of Wilberforce it continues to plague our cities, towns and rural areas, even across Leicestershire. Today, forms of slavery include forced labour on farms and construction sites. Forms of slavery are to be found in manufacturing and in services such as nail bars and car washes. Other forms include bonded labour and debt bondage that can be passed down to family members. Also, domestic servitude, drugs, human trafficking, organ harvesting, sexual exploitation and child marriage are other forms of slavery which is described by Leicestershire Police as “The illegal exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain”.
The most common forms of slavery today in the UK are forced labour fuelled by a drive for cheap products and services and trafficking people into crime. People who do this prey on the vulnerable and disadvantaged, both young and old, and they have little or no regard for the well-fare of others.
When I began to dig into the issue of Slavery, especially in Leicester, I was shocked to discover that while about 10,000 are currently working in slave-like conditions, mostly in textile factories, the real number trapped in or affected by slavery according to one official source is believed to be much higher.
Many who work in factories or businesses are paid little. The current UK national hourly wage is £8.72 for those aged 25 and over, £8.20 for those aged 21-24, £6.45 for those aged 18-20 and £4.55 for those aged under 18. One national newspaper recently reported that a crime crackdown investigation is being launched in Leicester into sweatshop conditions where workers are being paid £2.50 an hour.
There are dark corners in all societies and slavery inhabits them. Slavery in every form continues to be a reality across the UK and it is important to do what we can to eradicate it not least by voicing our concerns and reporting questionable practices.
We need to be vigilant making shopping choices. With regard to purchasing food one thing we can do is buy Fairtrade marked products. Fairtrade promotes decent working conditions, helps address the injustices of conventional trade, and provides decent wages for people. As for clothing or shoes and other items it is difficult to know whether or not products are manufactured by companies that oppose slave labour but often retail outlets, even reputable ones, may purchase goods not direct from manufactures but through a chain of agencies that in turn supply retail outlets. We may feel reassured knowing what we buy is ‘Made in the UK’ but some product labels tell us little. So we need to be careful what we buy.
Some months ago, prior to lockdown, I noticed that one local store was selling T-shirts for £3.00 and two for £5.00. That made me question how much some workers are being paid given all the costs of running factories, the cost of raw materials, the time taken to cut and sew garments, agency commissions, and the end of line % mark-up that retailers need to price-tag items at in order to make a profit.
With regard to the issue of poor and overcrowded working conditions this is certainly a worrying issue that needs to be urgently addressed to help clamp down on the number of Coronavirus cases. One worker recently highlighted the problem in a national newspaper by saying, “It’s crazy what is happening in these factories. These men and women are decent, hard-working people but they are risking their lives to produce clothes for big fashion brands in the UK”.
One of Jesus’ commandments is to ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’ (Mathew 22.39). If everyone did this then it would go a very long way to completely eradicating slavery in all its forms. While that remains a consummation devoutly to be wished it would certainly encourage a way of living and working that William Wilberforce and others would have supported and applauded. Let us give thanks for the mission of those who in the past have worked to oppose slavery and pray for all who are currently campaigning to do the same and bring to light all forms of human injustice.