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Against Modern Slavery by Dr Virginia Mantouvalou

By Virginia Mantouvalou, on 26 September 2012

On Tuesday 25 September, US President Barack Obama gave a powerful talk on human trafficking, describing abuses of workers’ rights as modern slavery. Obama undertook the commitment to make this a matter of priority for his administration. ‘We see you’, he said. ‘We hear you. We insist on your dignity’.

Setting workers’ rights at the top of the agenda and classifying their abuse as modern slavery has much symbolic power. This is particularly so when coming from the President of a country that has been scarred by slavery historically.  ‘I do not use the word “slavery” lightly’, Obama said. And he went on to explain: ‘When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape — that is slavery.  When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.’

Obama is not alone in classifying present-day labour abuses as slavery. Organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe have also adopted this position. The European Court of Human Rights itself brought the issue to the forefront of discussions in Europe. In Siliadin v France (2005), the abuse of a young migrant woman employed as a domestic worker was held to be servitude. In Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia (2010), the abuse of a young migrant woman, victim of sex trafficking, was held to be slavery. The position of the Court is that state authorities have a duty to criminalise this behavior, to protect and support victims, to investigate allegations, and other such issues. Against this background, the European Union adopted a Directive on Human Trafficking, and issued a Strategy towards the Eradication of Trafficking by 2016. The UK enacted legislation criminalizing human trafficking and modern slavery.

That grave labour exploitation of workers has been set at the top of the agenda, in Europe and the US, can only be welcomed. The recognition that workers’ rights are human rights, and that their breach is an affront to dignity, is an important start. The political will seems to be there. Yet the eradication of modern slavery will be no easy task. Present-day slaves are hidden. They work in private homes, in isolated agricultural areas, in factories in remote countries. They may wish to remain invisible to the authorities. They are in desperate need of jobs and may be fearful of deportation. We have to take firm steps to discover the victims and help address their abuse. But the recognition that the problem exists is no small achievement, so it is rightly celebrated as such.