Comment: Silence over slavery in Scotland deafening

'Prosecutions remain stubbornly low for traffickers but perversely high for survivors criminalised for being compelled to do their slave masters' dirty work'. Picture: TSPL
'Prosecutions remain stubbornly low for traffickers but perversely high for survivors criminalised for being compelled to do their slave masters' dirty work'. Picture: TSPL
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THIS Friday, 18 October, is the UK’s Anti-Slavery Day. This stems from the Westminster parliament’s unanimous recognition in its Anti-Slavery Day Act 2010 that this most hidden of crimes needs the status only law can provide – to keep it in the public gaze and to stop us forgetting that Britain and Scotland have a slavery problem.

Human trafficking is complex, accounts for most of what we call modern slavery today, and afflicts the vulnerable from overseas and these isles too. It is not explicable only as migration, organised crime or prostitution, but it is always a human rights violation symptomatic of a deeper, uncomfortable truth: of how organised or opportunistic human exploitation is perpetrated by the few whilst being tolerated, condoned or simply not registered by the many, in Scotland and beyond.

And, whilst Scotland is not peculiar in having slavery, it is rising. Prosecutions remain stubbornly low for traffickers but perversely high for survivors criminalised for being compelled to do their slave masters’ dirty work. The silence over the control, fear and abuse of survivors is deafening. This is no marginal social problem lurking in the shadows. It is integral, not peripheral, to Scotland and it reflects back how, unconsciously, much of our consumerist lives are fuelled by exploitation here and abroad, as would be clear if we paused to consider our own slavery footprints.

We must, though, avoid the self-defeating rhetoric of blame: anti-slavery is a shared endeavour, due to its social centrality: it is in our suburbia, in farms we get our food from, in restaurants and nail bars, in hotels, and on websites advertising sex. Like us, traffickers use smartphones and credit cards to organise their affairs. And slavery tears across Scotland: with cases in Argyll to Inverness-shire; in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow; and from Gretna to Skye.

Countless reports and inquiries have now spoken to the breadth, penetration and durability of modern slavery in Scotland, so last month Jenny Marra MSP and I published a consultation for a Human Trafficking (Scotland) Bill, as for us there can be little more pressing a parliamentary priority than legislating comprehensively against modern slavery. We have the support of experts such as Dr Anne T Gallagher, one of Hillary Clinton’s anti-slavery heroes, and of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC.

Our proposal is for clear and comprehensive modern slavery legislation, drawing on the best in human rights and criminal legal standards internationally and from our own Scots law, to substitute current piecemeal provision, riven by amendments and scattered across statute as it is – eg there is no sense in having two offences of trafficking; or not providing the best services for survivors and their non-criminalisation for offences they were compelled to commit.

The bill is also premised on the reality that fit-for-purpose action against human trafficking is long-term and such a generational approach best flows from law and not policy alone. Why? Well, because slavery is hidden, often unseen, and embedded in how we live. Those involved tend not to engage for very different reasons: survivors due to fear and trauma; traffickers as they are criminals.

Temporary “initiatives”, welcome as they are, can’t seriously get underneath these issues. No, we need a powerful statutory framework as only that, as a moment’s thought confirms, is commensurate 
with the scale of the challenge and the emotional disembodiment that slavery is. This problem is going nowhere fast, as it is the underbelly of our globalised consumerist lifestyles.

We need anti-slavery architecture fit for the required generational push. The Scottish Government’s summit against human trafficking is a start, but it has only an 18-month life and it is no substitute for a legal duty for a Scottish Human Trafficking Strategy, accountable to the parliament. Legal duties are made for issues such as this, as otherwise, unintentionally and over time, they slip off the political radar.

The consultation is Scotland’s national conversation against modern slavery. It is an unprecedented opportunity for our parliament to be at the vanguard of the global anti-slavery movement. And it can be done, as human trafficking is essentially crime, not asylum or immigration – so now is the time for Scotland to use the powers it already has and take full legislative responsibility against slavery. «

• Graham O’Neill is a writer on modern slavery