The invisible role of trade unions in the fight against slavery
On Saturday the Home Office released a new strategy for combating modern slavery or forced labour in Britain and abroad. We’re still digesting it, because, surprisingly, we weren’t consulted on it, and we aren’t mentioned in it. And this is not the only example of people trying to address forced labour without a key role for trade unions, even though we h1ave been at the forefront of the campaign against slavery, worldwide, for decades, especially through the tripartite International Labour Organisation (ILO). Earlier this month, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe held a major conference about the issue with just one union panellist from Russia.
But unions will continue to lobby MPs and Home Office Ministers over the Modern Slavery Bill currently going through Parliament; the Department for International Development over its funding for an ILO programme in the Gulf states (which we think should be extended from domestic workers to cover the construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 Qatar World Cup; and the Government generally over the problem of the present migrant domestic workers visa, which our friends at Anti-Slavery International have pointed out de facto legalises slavery.
Because according to the Home Office’s latest estimates, suggesting that the number is much higher than previously assumed, there are at least 13,000 slaves in Britain today, and it could be many more. Although most of the coverage focuses on trafficked prostitutes, modern slavery also includes domestic workers and people trapped – sometimes by debt, known as bonded labourers – in exploitative workplaces: such as fields, factories and fishing boats.
The Modern Slavery Bill has now reached the Lords, and the TUC continues to back amendments to restore the migrant domestic workers visa regime that operated under the last Labour government (an amendment tied in committee in the Commons); to increase access to justice for victims of slavery, an issue being pushed by Anti-Slavery International; stronger rules for Transparency in Supply Chains; and expansion of the scope of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and a clearer role for the new Modern Slavery Commissioner – the last few in alliance with the Ethical Trading Initiative and the British Retail Consortium.