Debate on Slavery


19th December 2006

For the full text of the debate, click here

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, my noble friend, the indomitable and indefatigable Lady Cox, has once again laid a Question of singular importance before your Lordships’ House for debate. Commemoration on 22 February 2007 of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade is of course right, but we are also right, as preceding speakers have said, to note that contemporary forms of slavery persist on a vast scale in many parts of the world. Perhaps as many as 27 million people are enslaved today. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 8.4 million children—approximately one in 175 children in the world—are held in slavery. The cocoa industry in Africa uses children, and in India children as young as six have been kidnapped and taken hundreds of miles from their village to weave carpets.

In addition to gross exploitation, it is said that about 700,000 people are trafficked every year. Slavery and trafficking generate billions of pounds worldwide, and even in countries such as our own, the deaths of the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers illustrated the horrors of the shadowy world of exploitation and gangmasters.

Part of the hold over migrant workers like these is debt bondage, which is estimated by the United Nations to affect more than 20 million people. Modern-day forms of slavery—based on discrimination because of racial origin, forced labour, child labour, trafficking and debt bondage—all underpin the economic and trade relationships from which we and many other countries continue to benefit. Compared with 1807, slavery tiptoes in carpet slippers, but it remains a pernicious and all-too-evident contemporary reality.

In Sudan, even the Arabic word which is used to describe the African Sudanese who live in the south of the country and in Darfur means slave. Perhaps that tells you all you need to know about why life is so cheap in Sudan. But it is also a land of heroes. I recently hosted a visit to your Lordships’ House by James Aguer, who is Anti-Slavery International’s 2006 award winner and was mentioned by my noble friends Lord Sandwich and Lady Cox. James is a Dinka who regularly has risked his life to expose slavery in Sudan. He has been arrested more than 30 times and has been imprisoned on many occasions.

The Dinka Committee of which James Aguer is chairman has documented 14,000 abductions and has suggested a further 6,000 occurred between 1997 and 2002. He told me that in addition to this, thousands of children have been born to those who have been abducted and, therefore, have also been enslaved. Despite securing the release of more than 4,000 Dinka people, neither the Dinka Committee nor the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) has funds to continue the work of identifying and releasing abductees and returning them to the south. I hope that when the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, replies she will give us information about whether additional support can be provided to CEAWC and the Dinka Committee. Sudan is by no means the only African country to permit contemporary slavery.

In a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Sandwich in 2005 I raised the situation in Niger. I had recently met members of the NGO, Timidria, whose president, Ilguilas Weila, and his colleague, Alassane Biga, had been arrested by the Government of Niger for graphically describing the widespread practice of slavery. In Niger, people are compelled to perform work for others simply because of their caste or ethnic group. Timidria found evidence that the majority of the 11,000 people whom they interviewed could identify individuals by name as their masters and were expected to work for them without pay. More than 80 per cent of respondents said that their master took key decisions in their lives, such as who they would marry and whether their children would go to school. Again, I hope that when the noble Baroness replies she will welcome last month’s decision by the Government of Niger to establish a national commission to tackle forced labour and the legacies of slavery, including discrimination. But, at a practical level, perhaps the Government could also usefully commit to discuss with our European Union colleagues how financial support could be made available to support the work of that commission in securing the release of slaves and providing alternative livelihoods.

It is significant that those who are subjected to forced labour are frequently from minority or marginalised groups. For example, slavery in Sudan affects different ethnic or religious groups. Bonded labour in India, Nepal and Pakistan disproportionately affects dalits and those who are considered to be of “low” caste, adivasis, indigenous people, or other minority groups, including religious minorities. Clearly, many governments will have limited resources for eradication programmes, but development projects could be focused on geographic areas where slavery-like practices are still relevant.

It would also be good to hear today from the Government what action they will take in 2007 to ensure that the relevant inter-governmental organisations prioritise combating slavery as part of an integrated strategy to achieve long-term development targets such as the millennium development goals and ensure that all relevant institutions’ poverty reduction strategy papers address forced labour issues.

I should like to mention one other country specifically. With my noble friend Lady Cox, I have travelled to North Korea, and we serve as chairman and vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on North Korea. During the famine of the 1990s, around 50,000 North Koreans fled to China’s Jilin province. The exodus was spurred by a mixture of starvation, political oppression and economic necessity. Leaving North Korea without permission is a criminal offence that can carry the death penalty. Once deported, people will spend between one and three months in a prison labour camp in which they are likely to become malnourished, live in unsanitary conditions and be subjected to forced labour. From those who have escaped, there are testimonies of beatings, torture, degrading treatment, and even forced abortions and infanticide.

The work day in a prison camp begins at five in the morning and ends at seven or eight in the evening. Pregnant, elderly and sick women are not exempt from the work. Types of labour include farming, construction, collecting heavy logs and brick making. For meals they are given a meagre quantity of corn and soup. The hard labour leads to a high number of fatalities. There are many first-hand accounts which attest to malnourishment, appalling hygiene and an absence of medical care to treat illness or injury. However you choose to define it, this is slavery.

I have two questions for the Minister about North Korea. What discussions have the Government had with the International Labour Organisation and the UN special rapporteur about the use of forced labour? Are we speaking directly to the Chinese Government about the repatriation of refugees to North Korea?

Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, I am deeply conscious of the role of Liverpool in the transatlantic slave trade. It is estimated that by the end of the 18th century, 60 per cent of Britain’s trading activities centred on Liverpool and, of course, it had the title of capital of the slave trade. In total, British ships are estimated to have made 12,000 voyages and to have carried2.5 million slaves. It is a poignant and shaming experience to stand, as I have done, at the Gate of No Return in Benin, from where so many of Africa’s slaves were wrenched away from their homes, their families, their culture and their identity.

Happily, Liverpool’s role in the trade is in part redeemed by the actions of William Roscoe, who served briefly in the House of Commons and in 1807 voted with William Wilberforce against the trade. For his pains, on his return to Liverpool he was set upon by the mob and never sat again in Parliament. He spent the rest of his life campaigning against slavery, penning polemical poetry, such as the deeply moving The Wrongs of Africa, and engaging in charitable and philanthropic endeavour. Today’s hugely successful Liverpool John Moores University, where I hold a chair—I declare my interest—can trace its origins to an initiative of Roscoe in 1823. Through its Foundation for Citizenship I regularly host lectures named for Roscoe and our contributors this year will include Trevor Phillips, Paul Robeson and President John Kufuor of Ghana.

I hope that, along with the publication of my noble friend’s important book, This Immoral Trade, events such as these will concentrate minds on what can be achieved when men and women set out to challenge a great evil. The example of Wilberforce, Equanio, Clarkson, Wedgwood, Roscoe and the rest remains deeply inspiring. Many of the campaigns for human rights over the past 200 years have been modelled on their successful actions. However, it is abundantly clear that if we merely indulge in some rather smug self-congratulation, we will have entirely missed the point.