This article was originally published in Edition (9) of Prayer Magazine,  Jan-Mar 2007.

May 25th 2007 sees the 200th anniversary of the end of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. 

Why Britain turned its back on over three centuries of lucrative slave trading has been a matter of great debate for decades. Traditionally, many put this down to the efforts of the abolitionists such as Wilberforce and Clarkson who convinced the great British public and Parliament that the transatlantic slave trade was immoral, cruel and unjustified.

Over half a century ago, historians such Eric Williams suggested that economic reasons rather than humanitarian sentiment were at the root of the cessation of abolition. Williams argued that changes in British economy stemming in regards to the industrial revolution, free trade policies and free labour, and the uncompetitive nature of Caribbean sugar made slave-produced sugar outmoded and abolition acceptable to business folk and politicians alike.

However, many have questioned Williams’ thesis and suggested that slave produced sugar was still profitable and the slave trade still advantageous for merchants. It can be argued that a number of socio-political and economic factors including the influence of non-conformist Christianity enabled the abolitionist committee to accomplish its work of ending the slave trade within 30 years.

There is no question of the desire and effort of the Slave Trade Abolitionists, most notable amongst them, John Newton, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Graville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More.  Many engaged government in debate often using their own resources to finance their campaigns.  Yet 200 years later, while it’s abhorrent to our western culture to even consider slavery as a means of servanthood or cheap manpower, the practice in many parts of the world still flourishes today.

It could even be said that the fact that slavery still exists suggests a weakening of the influence of our free society on other cultures or countries in political settings.  Even with the weight of a monolith United Nations, Slavery has often been overlooked or pushed down the political agenda as a hot potatoe which no one really wants to tackle on a truly collaborative International scale.

Today, Bonded labour affects millions of people around the world. People become bonded labourers by taking or being tricked into taking a loan for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child. To repay the debt, many are forced to work long hours, seven days a week, up to 365 days a year. They receive basic food and shelter as 'payment' for their work, but may never pay off the loan, which can be passed down for generations.


Early and forced marriage affects women and girls who are married without choice and are forced into lives of servitude often accompanied by physical violence.

Forced labour affects at least 12.3 million people who are illegally recruited by individuals, governments or political parties and forced to work – usually under threat of violence or other penalties.

Slavery by descent is even worse, where people are either born into a slave class or are from a 'group' that society views as suited to being used as slave labour.

Trafficking involves the transport and/or trade of people – women, children and men – from one area to another for the purpose of forcing them into slavery conditions.

Worst forms of child labour affects an estimated 179 million children around the world in work that is harmful to their health and welfare.

Human Trafficking is also on the increase although because of its hidden nature, it is impossible to measure accurately the numbers of people trafficked. The International Labour Organization estimates that over 2.4 million people have been trafficked. The United States Trafficking in Persons Report 2004 estimated that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year.  People generally find themselves or their children in the hands of traffickers in seeking to escape poverty and discrimination. They are promised well-paid jobs, better lifestyles, further education, marriage and many think they will be able to send money back to their families. In reality, where trafficking occurs, people are deceived or coerced into conditions of slavery, servitude or forced labour. While trafficked people think they have nothing to lose, traffickers stand to make huge profits from enslaving them. The ILO estimates that trafficking in people has generated.

Right now there has never been a better time to highlight all forms of slavery in our ‘modern world’  there has also never been a better time to pray into this whole issue.   There are of course many organizations working for the freedom of suppressed people groups and for those trapped in illegal systems of enforced labour or human trafficking.

We’ve listed three stories of slavery here in the hope that we would all be moved to pray for the thousands of people like, Asibit, Ricardo and Leelu.

Asibit
Asibit's experience is typical of many former slaves in Niger. She was a slave for 50 years. She was born a slave, her mother, husband and children were all slaves. She had to work all day from early in the morning, preparing food for the master and his family, milking camels, collecting water and firewood, and doing all the household chores. She had to move her master's heavy tent four times a day so he and the mistress remained sitting in the shade.

Asibit escaped on 28 June 2004, walking 30 kilometres to freedom. She says of her experience:

"We were never paid, I was only given one tenth of the camel milk and leftovers. I have never known happiness until this month of freedom. Now I can go to bed when I want, no one insults me. Now that I am free, I can live as I please."

Timidria, a local anti-slavery organisation, is now helping Asibit adjust to freedom and has also secured the release of her mother and daughter.

Ricardo
For Ricardo, it all started about four years ago, when he was offered the chance to take up well-paid work in the United States. An agent offered to organise his travel and employment and took a payment to cover costs. The journey took over a week, with 16 of them packed in the back of a van. They had nothing to eat, and had to urinate into a bottle.

Once in Florida, they were sold to a labour contractor for US$1,100 each. The contractor explained that they would have to work to pay back the money they now owed him.

Every day he took them to work on tomato farms. The work was backbreaking, a normal day lasted from 5.00am until 7.00pm. 'I was practically dying' says Ricardo, 'we didn't eat very well, the water was polluted that we were drinking.'

One of his co-workers tried to escape, but was caught. The contractor beat him and threatened to kill him if he attempted another escape. 'This is when I realised that it was really slavery.' Ricardo remembers. 'The next day I was sick from … bad food and I was weak and I couldn't work. But that wasn't enough. They made me work, I had no choice. I went because I was afraid.'

Ricardo and five of his co-workers managed to escape during a supervised trip to buy food. They made their way to a town, and were helped by a migrant workers support group. This group’s investigations exposed the exploitative practices of their employer. But even when the workers were set free, most of them were not recognised as victims of trafficking, but instead treated as illegal migrants and forced to leave the country immediately.

Leelu Bai
"I became bonded after I got married to my husband 20 years ago – his family had been bonded for three generations to the same landlord – they took loans for marriage, for illness, for education and so it went on… I used to work from 6.00 am in the landlord’s house – cleaning, fetching water…Then I would go to work on the farm…cutting, threshing and so on until 7.00 pm or later. Sometimes I would have to go back to the landlord’s house to clean and wash everything. Only after I had finished could I go home to feed my family. My landlord never let me work with another landlord, he would abuse us and threaten to beat us if we ever went to work for someone else. If we were ill, the landlord would come to our houses and tell us that we were very lazy and so on… As women, we had to work more than men because women had to work in the landlord’s house as well as the farm. Even after working on the farm, we had sometimes to go back to the landlord’s house to work…”

Leelu is a former bonded labourer adivasi (indigenous) woman from Thane District, India

These are heartbreaking stories from three very real people and the cycle continues on and on.  We can make a difference with this dreadful issue, if we engage with process and stand up and be a voice for those without a voice.  William Wilberforce in particular showed us that is we persist and get to the center of the argument so we can clearly demonstrate how wrong any issue is, we can make a last change even when laws needs to be changed or strengthened.

Even if these three testimonies don’t provoke you to do something, you can still pray.  Pray for Governments to irradicate all forms of slavery, pray for the UN to make the issue central to it’s members and pray for those in slavery, they might live long enough to taste the freedom you and I take for granted every day.

If you would like to know more about the issue, the two websites we highly recommend are www.stopthetraffic.org and also www.setallfree.net

 

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