I wonder how Solomon Northup would react to the film based on his life story winning the Oscar for Best Picture. 12 Years A Slave was a very impressive if harrowing film and it featured some great performances including Lupita Nyong’o who won best supporting actress and Chiwetel Ejiofor who won the BAFTA last month. Director Steve McQueen accepted the award for best film, concluding:
This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery, and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today. Thank you very much. (AP Oscar Summary)
Dedicating the award was a nice gesture and I’m sure McQueen was sincere in wanting to raise awareness of modern-day slavery both in his speech and through making the film. Although one of my colleagues seemed doubtful that we needed ‘another’ film about slavery I am sure the film has brought fresh insight into the harsh realities of slavery to a new generation and I hope some viewers might be inspired to action. The Oscar itself will likely further boost the film’s viewing figures but this won’t mean much to anyone currently enslaved within forced labour, sexual exploitation or servitude. Watching a film, even a moving one is a pretty passive activity, and our passivity or in some cases complicity with slavery allows it to be a global problem involving more people now than it did during the period when the film was set or at any other time in history.
Many of those Oscar winners and nominees on the red carpet last night are used to stopping traffic. If people will stop their cars to take pictures of good looking people, why are so many other people victims of car accidents every day? Is it really true that some people count and some people don’t? There is some pretty shocking driving in the area local to me and you really can’t be sure that any vehicle will stop even when you have right of way. Some mornings I wait at the zebra crossing watching cars sail by without stopping. I could walk out into the road and expect them to stop for me but I am unwilling to take that risk. I stand and watch and wait until I think it’s safe for me to move. But I’m not sure that standing and passively waiting is the best way to make the traffic stop.
There are a number of organisations who are much more actively trying to counter human trafficking and slavery – either as part of their remit or as their main priority. Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 and recently welcomed a new patron – Steve McQueen. Stop The Traffik is another global grassroots campaigning movement who have a current action regarding child trafficking in the chocolate industry here. Researcher and Professor Kevin Bales from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull and co-founder of Free The Slaves, the US sister organisation to Anti-Slavery International, has argued that slavery is a solvable problem within our generation. He ended his 2010 TED talk by asking:
“If we can’t use our intellectual power to end slavery, there’s one last question: are we truly free?”
In the UK, there is a draft Modern Slavery Bill currently under consideration by parliamentary select committee. The bill aims “to expose the hidden crime of slavery, bring more perpetrators to justice and protect and support victims” but campaigners including ECPAT UK have said that it does not go far enough. Last month Bharti Patel from ECPAT UK came to my workplace and spoke to students and staff about child trafficking and slavery. One key issue she stressed was how the new bill focuses on the end result of slavery rather than the many people and processes involved in human trafficking. Preventing trafficking is more complex than just identifying and rescuing people from slavery and many more people commit crimes in the recruitment, transportation and international concealment of trafficked and enslaved adults and children.
One of their current campaigns asks for additional measures to be added to the Modern Slavery Bill to help end child trafficking in particular (you can sign a petition here). News coverage of exploitation and trafficking does seem to have increased, perhaps following the more sensational cases of domestic servitude and groups forcing young people into sexual exploitation. However, the numbers of cases in the UK are low compared to 21-30 million worldwide. Even better legislation to protect children and victims in the UK will not go very far to stopping the traffik.
Beate Andreas from International Labour Organisation (ILO) was quoted in 2012 saying:
We have not quite reached the tipping point, but it’s much more difficult for countries and companies to get away with forced labour nowadays [Cited by Hogenboom, BBC Source]
Hogenboom brought together evidence from multiple key organisations about changes in legislation, companies becoming more aware (through boycotts), prevention work with street children, improved regulation and labour inspection and compensation claims which all suggest that the problem of global modern day slavery and trafficking could be addressed if the will to do this existed.
William Wilberforce would probably argue the need for perseverance – from his first campaign to abolish the slave trade to the law passing in 1807 took many attempts over nineteen years, and another twenty-six years before the overall abolition of slavery in the UK. Solomon Northup, although he regained his freedom after twelve years as a slave, did not succeed in prosecuting his kidnappers. His book sold 30,000 copies in three years, and he gave lectures within the abolitionist movement but the circumstances of his death are unclear although he probably died before slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865. 150 years later there is still a lot of work to do. I wrote a blog post. What next?