Masses of media time and column inches are devoted to irrelevancies, like a private company not providing the Olympics security it promised, or a young Royal partying without his clothes.

So why is the disgrace of slavery in the UK not a constant news item and crusade for politicians of all colours?

On this day in 1833, slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire. This followed its being outlawed in England in 1772 and throughout the UK in 1807. Slow but steady progress. But, later, that progress faltered.

Occasionally stories do reach the public. A husband and wife were jailed in July for treating destitute men “worse than slaves” (Independent, 12/07/12) at a caravan site near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.

Earlier this year, nine men were convicted of using children from care homes as sex slaves and in government plans to combat this sexual exploitation of children by gangs were published in July. A report by MPs at the time showed up to 10,000 children went missing from care last year (BBC, 03/07/12). And, once out of the door of such care homes, children are easy prey.

A 2007 study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (by a joint research team from the University of Hull and Anti-Slavery International: http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/modern-slavery-united-kingdom) found that forms of slavery are common in the UK.

For instance, they found human trafficking into the UK for sexual or domestic labour can involve thousands of women and children. Some children, in particular those from African countries, are trafficked through the UK to other countries.

Bizarrely, the UK has tended to treat trafficking as an issue of migration control rather than one of human rights! As a nation, we can sometimes seem hostile to people who want to live here, so the assumption might be “economic migrants” turn in desperation to illegal entry. But most trafficked people enter this country legally. Criminals can prey upon vulnerable people through a mixture of enforced debt, intimidation, simply taking away their documents or because they do not properly understand their rights.

What it comes down to is money.

The UN (International Labour Organisation) estimates worldwide traffic in human beings is worth at least US$32 billion annually, just under half coming from traffic to industrialised countries. Worldwide, more than 12 million people may be working as slaves, including at least 360,000 in industrialised countries.

Our collective hankering for “bargains” can cause slavery elsewhere in the world:

  • the conditions under which sportswear and clothing, or commodities such as tea or cocoa, are sometimes produced by slaves to keep down costs;
  • some UK-based companies, knowingly or not, rely on people working in slavery to produce goods which they sell cheaply.

And here at home, as a nation, we pretty much look the other way:

  • we like to think we care about children, yet there are at least 5,000 child sex workers in the UK;
  • children placed in care homes outside their home boroughs, no doubt to save money, often disappear from sight and can become prey to “child sex rings”;
  • each year a third of a million people go missing in Britain and, whilst most are found, those lost and destitute can end up in forced labour – as slaves.

I would say there is something wrong with a society that allows its own to be preyed upon and causes others to be preyed upon, all for the sake of money or an unwillingness to act?

As with so many social ills, they will persist if there remains a demand.

Surely it is about time we carried on the progress made 129 years ago, as the British Empire formally found its conscience?

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