…so why not do the same to ‘slavery’?
What many of those we spoke to in Ireland during the year-long investigation found hard to accept was that some of the exploitation reported to us might be a problem of slavery, although human rights groups and the seafarers’ union are convinced that is what it is. African and Asian workers wanted to come, they said. Employers were doing them a favour. They were happy to live on trawlers – even though the pay was often a fraction of what locals might earn for the same work – because it was nevertheless more than they could ever earn at home. They might be working illegally and be undocumented, but they were friends, like family. That can’t be slavery, surely?
Well, no. Not until you stretch the definition out of all meaning, anyway.
Most of the migrant workers we interviewed, by contrast, conveyed a sense of constant fear, feeling trapped by their lack of immigration status. They also conveyed a sense of deep degradation. We did not attempt to put figures on the scale of trafficking – measuring something that is hidden and illegal is, by definition, impossible. Any figures that do emerge should, like all statistics on irregular immigration, be treated with caution. Undocumented migrant workers who are being exploited tend not to appear on the mandatory crew logs. Some talked clearly, however, of being treated as though they were less than human, or as second-class citizens.
There are quite a few people who feel that way about their jobs. Are they now ‘slaves’?
To think so would be utterly absurd, but then, this is the ‘Guardian’…
Legal definitions of slavery have changed. New legislation in the UK and amended legislation in Ireland aims to recognise that slavery today is not limited to chattel slavery and violent control. The new laws recognise that victims may have consented to their initial journeys, and that control may be exercised in other ways than the physical.
A huge cultural shift is still needed to recognise the phenomenon of modern slavery for what it is. The words we use matter because those who do not recognise it are, in effect, saying: we pay them enough for who they are.
That long march through the institutions continues.