Australians and Modern Slavery

Slavery is a universal phenomenon. It stretches far back into human history and spreads itself indiscriminately across every culture. Tragically, it persists to this day. Statistics are always difficult to find (because modern slavery necessarily exists on the fringes of society), but David Batstone (2010) in his book “Not for sale” conservatively estimates that there are thirty million people presently trapped or born into slavery — a state in which a person is owned by another person. Enslaved people are restrained and controlled in their movements, their environment, their psyche, their sexuality and their opportunities to escape, and they are subject to cruel treatment and abuse through the threat and use of force.

There are ten forms of modern slavery, as defined by the United Nations (with one more recent addition): child labour, child soldiery, child trading, debt slavery (also called indentured servitude), forced labour, forced marriage, forcing in war, human trafficking, labour trafficking and organ trafficking. These forms are all expressions of human ownership, and those who are enslaved may find themselves under multiple forms, or may transition from one form to another. They have different legal definitions, are found in different contexts, can affect and prey upon different groups of people, fall under different international treaties and may require different responses.

Slavery does not happen by accident. It’s the deliberate and systematic theft of a person’s freedom, for the benefit of another. Four social processes provide a space for this theft to happen — poverty; disempowerment; crime and corruption; and conflict. These four engines operate in a summative way, and meaningful and sustainable change needs to consider them. Every society must support the impoverished, sustain relationships, ensure justice, and manage conflicts in order to protect people from being excluded, and becoming vulnerable to slavery. Australian society tries to distribute resources and benefits in a way that includes all groups. Nevertheless, Australians might find themselves encountering or contributing to slavery in several direct and indirect ways: in the experiences of refugees and immigrants as they try to build a life here; in the ways we conduct, use or invest in business both here and abroad; where and how we travel overseas; and in confronting historical experiences of slavery within Australia.

In confronting slavery ourselves, it can be helpful for us to consider the positive responses that others have had to experiences of slavery in the past. Over the next couple of weeks we will consider three early Saints, largely contemporaneous of one other, who have particular value for those who might be inspired to abolitionism by the Christian faith tradition.

Image: Many young children work in stone quarries throughout Nepal. © 1998 International Labour Organization/Gianotti E