John Oldfield: Honour Kofi Annan's memory in slavery fight

KOFI Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations who died over the weekend, was one of the greatest freedom fighters not just of our day, but of all time. His commitment to, and compassion for the human rights cause, were astounding '“ and will live long in the world's memory.

Kofi Annan was the former secretary-general of the United Nations.

We need to embrace that memory and continue championing the cause for human rights. While many of us take our freedom for granted, it is a sombre fact that this most basic of human rights remains fragile in many countries worldwide.

I was honoured to meet Mr Annan when he delivered the annual Wilberforce Lecture in Hull as part of city’s annual Freedom Festival just short of a year ago. I was privileged to present him with the Wilberforce Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to human rights and democracy on behalf of the Wilberforce Lecture Trust.

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Kofi Annan during a meeting with the Queen in 2007.

The year of Mr Annan’s visit marked the 210th anniversary of the British Slave Trade Abolition Act – a piece of legislation pioneered in Yorkshire by Hull’s William Wilberforce MP.

Kofi Annan’s words were a powerful mediation on the meaning of freedom in the 21st century and a timely message that tackling slavery very much remains unfinished business in the world today.

He spoke passionately of the need to oppose contemporary slavery as vehemently as Wilberforce and his colleagues in leading one of the greatest human rights movements. Delivering a poignant reminder that the power is in our hands to take a stand, to learn from our rich history and strong leaders – and create a better future.

Yorkshire is rightly proud to have been central to an abolition movement once before, but there a critical amount of work is still to be done.

Many consider slavery a relic of the past – but millions of men, women and children across the world today are routinely trafficked into forced labour, poverty and deprivation. According to the International Labour Organisation, there are an estimated 40.3 million victims of slavery worldwide. And the Home Office estimates there are 13,000 people trapped in slavery in the UK today.

We need to increase awareness of what is happening all around us.

Too often modern-day slavery goes undetected. This insidious practice often plays out hidden in plain sight and the areas of our lives it touches are widespread. With forced labour existing in the domestic, construction, hospitality and beauty industries to name but a few, we are unwittingly coming into contact with this malevolent crime as we go about our day-to-day lives.

By understanding the signs of slavery – and what to do if we witness it – we can all help to safeguard against labour exploitation.

Businesses, too, have a role to play. The complexity and pace involved in today’s supply chains combines to create an environment where unscrupulous labour providers can often thrive. Slavery is rife in the retail, agricultural and manufacturing industries, touching many of the goods we consume.

It’s not just a moral responsibility weighing heavy on the shoulders of industry, but a legal one as well. With the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, companies in the UK with a turnover of £36m a year or more are legally required to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement every year. This should outline the steps they are taking to eliminate forced labour from within their business.

Though a welcome step in the right direction, the legislation has left many businesses at a loss as to where to start in eliminating slavery from their operations. This confusion may be partly to blame for a significant proportion still failing to comply with their legal obligations in
this issue. It may appear insurmountable task but help is available. At the Wilberforce Institute, we’ve seen businesses tackle this issue directly, utilising our guidance and services to identify slavery in their supply chains and eliminate it.

Given its association with William Wilberforce, Yorkshire is uniquely placed to continue the fight for freedom and equality. Inspired by the legacy that Wilberforce and Mr Annan leave, I take heart that we can join together to defend human rights and to take a stand against contemporary slavery: one of the most urgent and most dangerous threats to human rights in the world today.

Professor John Oldfield is Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull.