Caring for people and planet

When we first formed our West Kent anti-slavery team, one of our new members asked me how do we know where we should commit our time and energy when there are so many pressing issues out there. At the time she was, and still is, very much involved in charitable work to combat climate change and to help with the refugee crisis. My on-the-spot response was to say that all these crises – modern slavery, climate change and the refugee crisis – are interlinked. The same evils lie behind all of them – greed, a lack of compassion for our fellow man and planet, a lack of appreciation of God’s creation, selfishness and indifference. At the time I had studied some of Kevin Bales’ work (Kevin Bales is Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham, co-author of the Global Slavery Index and co-founder of Free the Slaves) on the links between modern slavery and environmental destruction, so I knew there was a physical link as well as a spiritual one. However, in this year of the UK hosting the G7 and COP26, more and more charities and agencies are now talking about these links.

In his book, “Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World”, 2016, Kevin Bales estimates that slave-based deforestation is responsible for the emission of 2.54 billion tons of CO2 each year, a lower amount globally than only China and the United States. Therefore, he proposes that there is an inseparable nexus between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change.

Anti-Slavery International has published two reports this year on the links between modern slavery, climate change and the refugee crisis (the first with Dublin City University entitled “From a Vicious to a Virtuous Circle: Climate Change, Environmental Destruction and Contemporary Slavery” and the second with International Institute for Environment and Development entitled “Climate-Induced Migration and Modern Slavery – A Toolkit for Policy-Makers”). In April of this year, I attended a webinar hosted by Anti-Slavery International called “Climate Change, Modern Slavery and a Just Transition”. Jennifer Townson, the UK Envoy for Migration and Modern Slavery, spoke during the webinar and mentioned the statistic that, globally, approximately 12.2 million workers are trapped in modern slavery in environmentally degrading activities. She talked about extractive industries, such as mining and oil and gas, and industrialised agriculture being responsible for about half of global carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss. She went on to talk about the vicious cycle, where those displaced by climate change may be trapped in forced labour in these industries, which leads to further climate change and more migration.

Another speaker at the webinar was Carolina Rudnick from Fundación Libera contra la Trata de Personas in Chile. She talked about exploitation of the planet and people being driven by over-production and over-consumption, which is driven by our current economic capitalist system. She believes we need to radically re-think supply chains and radically re-think what consumption means to us.

Her views echoed the words of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical (“The Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home”): “When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. […]The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. […]In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be put on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species?” He questions the rationality of fighting to save the planet while ignoring the plight of human beings: “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted. This compromises the very meaning of our struggle for the sake of the environment”.

Since 2016, when I first heard about modern slavery, I have been encouraged by the amount of awareness that has been raised. When I mention modern slavery to family, friends and acquaintances, they no longer look at me as if I have lost my mind. More often than not, they have read about it in the newspapers, seen a documentary about it, heard about it on “The Archers” or seen a dramatised version of it on “Shetland”. However, the awareness of the links between modern slavery, climate change and the refugee crisis are still little known, even amongst people working to combat modern slavery.

As a result, I was happy to see a post about it from Hope for Justice on their Instagram page in June of this year. I quote from their post: “The deadly triangle between modern slavery, environmental destruction and climate change has accelerated. The traffickers are contributing to environmental destruction through the labor they force their victims to do, impacting vital ecosystems. This ‘impact’ is increasing climate change where we are seeing extreme weather events accelerated, increasing people’s vulnerabilities such as homelessness and joblessness, which contribute to the risk of modern slavery and human trafficking. And the cycle begins again. This #WorldEnvironmentDay we ask you to think about the deadly triangle. A world free from slavery would be a world in which the climate crisis too might look very different.”

It is time for people working on climate change, the refugee crisis and modern slavery to start working together. These overwhelming problems are inter-linked and by opening our eyes to the common threads between them, we might see a way of curing the causes of these crises and not just mitigating the symptoms.

Have we won the moral victory?

In my talk at the Wilberforce Oak, I said that – unlike William Wilberforce and his colleagues – we no longer need to persuade people that slavery is morally wrong. However, I have begun to wonder whether I was right. Do people consider modern slavery morally wrong?

The preliminary research in the report “Consuming Modern Slavery” (by Dr Michal Carrington, Prof Andreas Chatzidakis and Prof Deirdre Shaw, 2018) found that consumers were morally outraged by child labour, but that they did not even consider forced adult labour as modern slavery: “Child slaves were viewed as highly vulnerable in every sense, and without the abilities or resources to change their situation. […]adults were predominantly categorised by consumers as not slaves – rather as exploited workers with the ability to change their conditions.”

The authors of the report also investigated the “neutralisations” that consumers use to justify indifference and inertia in relation to slave-based consumption. They identified four key neutralisation techniques, namely, denial of victim, denial of injury, condemnation of the condemners and dehumanisation of modern slaves. One consumer interviewed for the report said: “It’s a cost-benefit analysis. There are these problems [modern slavery], but I get so much benefit from it that I continue doing it.” The first few times I read that statement I was absolutely horrified that anyone could say such a thing, but then I took a long hard look at my own consumption. I still own a smartphone because it is so convenient despite the fact that I know that the cobalt in its battery was probably mined by children. I still buy prawns because my children love them despite the fact that I know that the majority of prawns are probably caught or farmed by slaves and cleaned and peeled by slaves. These are only a couple of examples.

I have quoted Amber Cagney from the “Focus on Modern Slavery!” podcast before and I would like to quote her again: “the key to that [making changes] is re-humanising people, re-humanising workers, caring about what their working conditions are like, caring if people are not paid the minimum wage, caring if they’re being forced to be there or not and not thinking ah well you’re from this country so you get paid more here than you did there so it’s ok for you to be in exploitation because it’s better than it was back home. […]If everybody is meant to be treated equally and fairly, if you’re in the UK you should be paid the same minimum wage as anybody else. Your working conditions should be safe and if everybody had those two things then modern slavery would be reduced drastically.”

This quote really resonated with me because of two experiences I have had in the last few years. Firstly, when I lived in South East Asia it was considered morally right to have a maid or domestic helper, who often lived in a windowless room, was paid very little money in comparison to local wages, was only entitled to a flight back home to see their family and children once every 2 years and who was expected to work morning to night six days a week – cooking, cleaning, shopping and usually providing a lot of child care. This was considered morally right because it was legal and it was the norm and, ultimately, because “they were better off than they would have been where they came from”. Why is it right that someone is paid a lot less than a national of the country they work in purely because they are from a poorer country? Why is it right that their working conditions are worse than a national of the country they work in purely because those conditions are better than the conditions they are used to back home? Why is this not exploitation?

Obviously, there is a difference between someone who is working in sub-optimal conditions for sub-standard pay and someone who is forced to work for no pay at all. However, even in the latter case, it has been suggested to me that that is still “better than what they have at home”.

When I was considering phoning the Modern Slavery Helpline for the first time to report a suspicion I had about my local car wash, someone very dear to me suggested that perhaps I was making a mistake. Perhaps the people working there wanted to work there. Perhaps they preferred working under brutal conditions for no pay because it was better than living in the country where they came from. The person that suggested this to me is originally from the Czech Republic. I asked her whether living in a caravan with many others, working in a car wash from dawn until dusk, possibly being subject to violence and receiving absolutely no pay and very little food would be preferable to living in the Czech Republic. The workers in that car wash could easily have been Czech.

Even if the workers’ home situation was absolutely dire, and in all likelihood it was because the ruthless people who persuaded and coerced them into slavery exploited that weakness, is it morally right that we stand by and do nothing while they continue to be exploited when they have tried to make a better life for themselves?

Recently, I listened to a Justice and Coffee podcast with John Tanago, International Justice Mission’s Director of the Centre to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children. He recommended the video “I Am Brave”, which tells the story of a survivor of child online sexual exploitation from the Philippines. She talks about how she was placed into a situation of vulnerability when her mother decided to move abroad to earn more money. There are approximately 11.5 million migrant domestic workers globally (“Global Estimates on Migrant Workers” by International Labour Organization, 2015). Who is looking after their children while they spend years separated from them?

Are we putting convenience before other people’s lives? Are we putting price before other people’s lives? Inevitably, as consumers, we are all guilty of this to some extent. We need to do better. It is a cost-benefit analysis, but surely the conclusion is that the cost of cheap and convenient goods and services to the lives of those who provide them outweighs the benefit to us? Is it time that we go against the tide of what is common practice and admit that it is not just the slave holders and corrupt governments that are abhorrent, but that, as consumers, we are all culpable?

I want to leave you with one final quote from US President John Adams in a letter he wrote to Robert J. Evans in 1819: “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character”.

Are we putting convenience before people?

I wanted to write this blog about ethical consumption before Christmas, but I kept starting and stopping because I found it so difficult to write about this subject without feeling like a complete hypocrite.

Trying to make ethical purchasing choices is such a minefield. Should I focus on products that are plastic-free, with a low carbon footprint, that have not been tested on animals, that are organic or that are slavery-free? That is if I can even establish any of these things for certain.

Whenever I go to a supermarket to buy some fruit and vegetables – granted, I should instead be going to a farm shop, but sometimes it is really hard to visit three or four different food shops per week while bringing up two young children – I am inevitably faced with the choice of organic or plastic-free. It seems to be impossible to have both.

During the first lockdown, I tried to go plastic-free in the bathroom. I will not bore you with my trials and tribulations with shampoo bars, but I thought I had at least cracked it when I bought some Georganics dental floss in a glass jar. Disappointingly, I later found out that the charcoal version I had been using does in fact contain plastic. I understand that Georganics were unaware of this themselves and have now changed the product so that it is plastic-free and fully compostable.

One of the earliest videos I watched when I became interested in modern slavery was “Slavery: A Global Investigation” by True Vision. Many things about that video horrified me, but the part that upset me the most was when they interviewed a young man who had been a slave on a cocoa plantation. First, they asked him if he had tasted chocolate. He had not. They then asked him what he would say to the millions and millions of people around the world who do eat chocolate. He replied: “If I had to say something to them it would not be nice words. They enjoy something I suffered to make; I worked hard for them, but saw no benefit. They are eating my flesh.”

I did not go near chocolate for many weeks afterwards. I do not smoke, I do not drink coffee, I barely drink tea, I drink a lot less alcohol since I had children, but I absolutely love chocolate. When I struggled to kick the habit of eating chocolate, I was happy to find the following list of chocolatiers that use ethically sourced cocoa:

For the most part I stick to the list and I try to encourage the grandparents to stick to it when they buy us chocolate gifts – although I am less successful on that front!

My current favourite brands are Divine Chocolate and Tony’s Chocolonely. The biggest stake in Divine Chocolate is owned by a Fairtrade cocoa farmers’ cooperative in Ghana, who share the company’s profit. Tony’s Chocolonely builds direct long-term relationships with cocoa farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, paying them a higher price and working together to solve the underlying causes of modern slavery. They do this not just for their own chocolate, but for all chocolate worldwide.

Even though I do not drink coffee and my husband has given it up, I recently came across an amazing coffee company called Blue Bear Coffee, whose sole purpose is to raise money and awareness for the fight to end human trafficking and modern slavery. It donates 100% of its net profits to its charity partners, Justice and Care, Unseen and International Justice Mission. I would very much recommend their blog and their podcast, “Justice and Coffee”, accessible on their website:

Another podcast called “Focus on Modern Slavery!” and a set of videos, both presented by Debbie Huxton, have also really inspired me recently. Debbie is a modern slavery campaigner, working in partnership with the Mothers’ Union, The Clewer Initiative and the Lichfield Diocese. I would wholeheartedly recommend her video called “Where would Jesus shop?”, accessible on YouTube:

In one of the episodes of her podcast, Debbie interviews Amber Cagney, the Development Manager at West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network. I would like to quote Amber: “I think that sometimes when people don’t work directly in a sector they can just think ‘Oh, you know, what can I do or what contribution would this make?’ and even just buying something second hand instead of new is great, buying something from a more ethical supplier that’s great. Don’t underestimate your consumer buyer power. […]You don’t have to be opening a safehouse to be making a difference. The smallest steps are really important.”

Amber also mentions a quote from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” That quote really resonates with me too. We all make mistakes, like mine with the dental floss, but we should not be disheartened.

Trying to shop ethically is very time consuming – time that sometimes I would rather spend with my family, helping a friend, exercising or even reading a good book. However, as consumers we have the power to change supply chains and free people from forced labour even if we never meet anyone trapped in modern slavery personally and that, I believe, is worth the effort.

My talk at the Wilberforce Oak

We are standing here at the tree where William Wilberforce decided to pursue the abolitionist campaign in 1788. Thanks to his efforts over many decades and the efforts of the other early abolitionists, it became illegal to own a slave in the UK in 1833. We no longer need to campaign to make slavery illegal. It is already illegal in every country in the world. Unlike William Wilberforce and his colleagues, we no longer need to persuade people that slavery is morally wrong. Even though the number of potential slaves in the world and here in the UK are staggeringly high, as a percentage of the population they are the lowest they have ever been.

Our challenge today is to bring slavery into the light and to help support those that are freed from slavery so they do not fall back into a cycle of desperation and exploitation.
What can we do to help over 40 million in slavery in the world and approximately 136,000 in slavery in the UK today?

We can learn to spot the signs:
1) Is there a suspicious person always around them? This could be the person holding them in slavery. They may not allow the slave to be by themselves.
2) Are they struggling with the language? If someone cannot speak the language they cannot ask for help from others around them very easily.
3) Has their passport or ID been taken away from them? This means that they have no proof of who they are and they cannot travel.
4) Are they sad or angry? They may be distressed if they are being treated badly. They may be missing home and have been hurt.

We all need to report when we are concerned that modern slavery could be happening in our local area. You can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700 and pass on any concerns, or in an emergency situation you should call the police on 999.

We can also ensure we are not putting price before people in our shopping habits. When we go to hand car washes or nail bars are those people washing our cars or painting our nails being paid a decent wage and living free of threats and violence? When we buy our coffee, our chocolate, our tuna and our clothes, amongst others products, have those products been produced, harvested or caught by children or adults living in horrific conditions with little or no pay and with little regard to their safety.

We can support the Free for Good campaign here in Britain.

When someone escapes a situation of slavery they can be extremely vulnerable. Often they need medical treatment, legal advice and mental health support. Most of all they need some stability while they work out how to rebuild their lives.

But in Britain the support for victims is far from what it should be. The Government currently provides short-term support, usually for up to 45 days, or the time it takes the authorities to decide whether someone qualifies as a victim of slavery. After that the support ends.

Most victims have to move out of a safe house without any further support as they attempt to rebuild their lives away from slavery. While dealing with their recent trauma they struggle to make ends meet, some risk becoming homeless, and many become targets for traffickers again.

The authorities often see victims of slavery through the context of their immigration status and treat them as immigration offenders rather than victims of a serious crime.
If victims do not have a guarantee of sustained support they are unlikely to feel safe and secure enough to give evidence to police investigations into their captors.

We need to change this situation. We need more people to become aware of it and put pressure on the Government to act.

Finally, we can talk about this crime with friends, families, neighbours and acquaintances. The criminal networks behind this crime are ruthless and devious, but we can work to cut off the demand for their products and services and we can work to help the potential victims of slavery be more resilient and aware of the potential danger of this crime.

I am now going to hand over to the wonderful Peter to lead us in song – songs that have brought comfort to those living in slavery in the past and songs that can galvanise our resolve to take action, whether that action be big or small.

Walking in Wilberforce’s footsteps

On 14 March 2020 we were extremely blessed to be able to go ahead with our Wilberforce Walk – the last event hosted by the Diocese of Rochester before lockdown. We completed a a circular walk from Keston to Downe and back via the Wilberforce Oak, where William Wilberforce sat when he decided to pursue the abolitionist campaign in 1788. The Rt Revd Simon Burton-Jones, Bishop of Tonbridge gave an inspiring talk on modern slavery and what makes a successful anti-slavery campaigner at Keston Parish Church before we set off.

At the Wilberforce Oak we lay down some flowers for the victims of modern slavery and a local singer, Peter, very kindly led us in some freedom songs, including Amazing Grace by John Newton, Moses, Go Down as published by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas. John Newton was a slave, then later the captain of a slave ship before becoming an abolitionist at the time he wrote the hymn. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were mostly freed slaves who toured extensively, introducing the world to spirituals and raising funds to build a University. They even sang for Queen Victoria. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free was an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s.

In Downe we had a picnic lunch at the village hall and our fabulous volunteer, Helen, gave a talk about historical slavery in Kent and what we can learn from the early abolitionists in our fight against modern slavery today. Amongst others, she talked about the Testonites, an influential group of English abolitionists named after Teston in Kent, where they began to meet at Barham Court, home of Charles Middleton, 1st Baron Barham, in the early 1780s. They included Rev James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More.

There were also Messy Crafts at Downe, which were enjoyed by children and adults alike.

I would like to say a special thank you to Rev Carol Morrison and Rev John Musson for opening Keston Parish Church and St Mary, Downe to us, for their advice and support and for their talks and prayers on the day.

Finally, please read and listen to these two wonderful talks from the day – one given by the Bishop of Tonbridge and one given by Helen:

To quote Bishop Simon:

The passive citizen responds by thinking they cannot understand it and there is nothing they can do to influence outcomes […] The active citizen sees the complexity of the slave trade as a problem to be solved. They know they can’t do it alone, but are aware of the power of crowds to source solutions.

To quote Helen:

What this is all about, as we’re looking at modern slavery, is how a tiny handful of deeply committed people changed the world.