Jo Cox: European action needed to defeat the evil of slavery

WHEN I tell my friends I work to combat slavery, I get some pretty odd looks. Many people assume slavery is a relic of history, long abolished in our onward march of progress. But two centuries after anti-slavery campaigners fought and eventually won their battle to end the horrific trans-Atlantic trade in people, modern slavery is sadly still a reality. By some estimates there are around 10,000 victims of trafficking in the UK each year; young women sexually exploited in brothels, men working long hours on low or no pay, children forced to work in cannabis factories.

This month the Government introduced a Bill setting out plans to tackle modern slavery including increased sentences for those caught trafficking people, and a plan to introduce the position of a new anti-slavery commissioner.

The UK is right to show leadership on an issue which according to the Global Slavery Index affects an estimated 30 million people around the world. Though every country has declared it illegal, children are still being coerced to work as domestic servants in Haiti; Nepalese men are stuck in debt bondage on World Cup construction sites in Qatar; women and girls are trapped in sex slavery in Thailand; and young Afghan girls are sold in marriage to old men to settle tribal disputes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I’ve met deeply traumatised Congolese and Ugandan children who as young as eight were forcibly recruited by warlords as child soldiers. These children are brutalized and forced to commit atrocities on fellow abductees and even family members, and those who try to escape are killed. They live in a state of constant fear, violence becomes a way of life and the psychological trauma is incalculable.

The varieties of modern slavery are nearly endless, but it always includes the violent and coercive exploitation of the most vulnerable people, who are deprived of their freedom for the personal gain of others.

After the Home Secretary had previously refused European co-operation to stop human trafficking, the Government is right to bring forward new measures to tackle this evil.

There is strong cross-party support for this legislation in the UK but it will be crucial that Ministers and MPs ensure the Bill is strong enough to deal with an ever-shifting trade.

The Government has said it wants to make it easier to prosecute traffickers. This must be welcomed – we need strong action from the police and courts. And frontline staff need training to spot signs of trafficking and make sure victims are helped, not punished.

We also need more transparency in supply chains so that companies are responsible for ensuring that products they sell are not tainted with slavery. For a long time we have known that modern slavery is hugely profitable. But the latest authoritative report from the International Labour Organisation shows that we have been badly under-estimating just what big business this trade is. Their latest report, published this month, estimates that forced labour in its various forms generates a shocking $150bn in profits a year. That’s well over 10 times the annual profits of the entire global airline industry, or three times the total global sales of Coca-Cola.

Often the most vulnerable victims of trafficking are children and this is where I fear the Government’s plans fall down. In 2013, an estimated 550 children were thought to be potential victims of trafficking in the UK. This is most likely to be the tip of the iceberg, which is why I’m working to help create a new fund to help bolster community efforts to tackle this problem at its source.

Most appalling of all is that almost two-thirds of rescued children go missing again. Put into care, they simply disappear – presumably picked up by the same or other trafficking gangs. Abused already, they are then let down by a system supposed to keep them safe. Charities describe finding children who don’t know which country they are in.

The EU directive on human trafficking introduces the concept of independent “guardians” for trafficked children to help and protect them. But so far the Home Secretary has refused to implement them.

Here in Yorkshire we are seeing more and more serious and heart breaking examples of trafficking and slavery. Predominantly the victims are from Europe, Slovakia and Hungary in particular.

To help tackle this we need more European co-operation, not less. Europol, working with the UK and others, recently found 450 women being trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Trafficking is a horrific crime and an evil trade exploiting a weak system. We must make sure the Government does everything possible to complete the job started by those brave, determined abolitionists in the late 18th century and end this cruel business forever.

Jo Cox is a senior advisor to the Freedom Fund and Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Batley & Spen.