Modern slavery, a global epidemic

By HRH Princess Eugenie and Julia de Boinville, co-founders of The Anti-Slavery Collective

There’s endless discussion, these days, about the history of slavery, but not nearly enough about what’s actually happening all around us at the moment, in our supposedly civilised modern world. The figures are, to put it mildly, sobering: an estimated 49.6 million people round the globe are now – right now – living as slaves. That’s the equivalent of two thirds of the population of Britain. This is the scandal we should be dealing with, because it is a scandal – and it’s rapidly getting worse.

Whilst the word epidemic is more often used in relation to disease or health, there is no better word to describe the global spread of modern slavery and the extent to which it has become ingrained in the fabric of our society.

The number of people trapped in conditions of slavery has grown by some 10 million in the last five years alone, and continues to grow. Modern slavery is prevalent in every sector. The evidence of it is there in the clothes we wear, in the food we eat, in the services we pay for. It’s happening all over the world. There are plenty of cases right here in Britain, where it’s quite likely someone is being treated as a slave no more than a mile from where you live.

Thanks to a number of campaigning organisations – and we’re proud to have started one of them – awareness of modern slavery is gradually increasing. So why are the numbers still climbing? There are several reasons, including the lingering impact of the pandemic, the growing impact of climate change and the wars in Ukraine and elsewhere. We consumers are to blame, too: one of the effects of globalisation is an increased demand for cheap goods and services, many of which rely on forced labour.

But gradually the message is getting through and we in the world’s developed nations are becoming more conscious of the effects of our relentless consumerism, while businesses, under pressure from their customers – especially younger customers – are becoming more accountable and responsible in the way they hire and treat their staff. This is more and more evident in the private sector, as companies scramble to keep up with consumer demands for ethical goods and ever changing laws that are protecting workers rights.

When we were first approached to co-curate the Art is Freedom exhibition alongside Hestia and modern slavery survivors in their service we could not pass the opportunity up. As a charity, The Anti-Slavery Collective champions the need for cross sector collaboration in this space, but further than that we know that raising awareness of this issue within public and private sectors is pivotal to fighting this global epidemic.

In recent months, we have been working with the leading modern slavery charity Hestia, co-curating its annual ‘Art is Freedom’ exhibition alongside survivors of modern slavery. The exhibition serves as a space to honour and respect the voices of the survivors. We were lucky enough to hear Trinis’ story. Trinis is one of the survivors we collaborated with to curate the exhibition. She told us how she moved from Trinidad to London and ended up working in exploitative environments – and how art became a form of therapy for her.

Modern slavery includes a series of shocking statistics that make you feel overwhelmed by a fight so enormous it’s hard to know where to begin. We always say to each other, if we can help one person in this world then that’s an incredible start. The best thing you can do is acknowledge this is happening in your world, the world you live and love in, the world you hope to make better for the next generation, the world we can say to our children and grandchildren we tried to improve.

The survivors who shared their stories and art in this exhibition did so in order to heal, in order to teach, and in order to shine a light on hope coming out of despair. The great abolitionist William Wilberforce said “you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” If you’re in London this week, we urge you to go and see the ‘Art is Freedom’ exhibition and learn what can be done by one person, to change the fate of another.

The Art is Freedom Exhibition is free and open to the public, you can find it located in Trafalgar Square, London Bridge and South Kensington from the 14th to the 23rd of October.

For more information on modern slavery, resources and stories follow @the_anti_slavery_collective and @hestia_charity on all social media platforms.

*Source: International Labour Organization, UN Migration and Walk Free Foundation

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