On Invisible Slaves and Involuntary Slave Masters

What would you say or do if you knew that behind your most beautiful vacations or most perfect evenings out, there are slaves working for you? That your wine and food are served by invisible slaves? That your hotel room and en suite are cleaned by enslaved maids? That some of the people traveling next to you on a plane, in the hope of a chance of employment, may be slaves before they even know it? That, unwittingly, some of your happiness is supported by people who go to through tremendous physical and psychological suffering and who are treated without any shred of human dignity?

My reflections on modern slavery start with a story. It is a story calledThe Ones Who Walk Away From the Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin’s. When I first read it, I thought it employed exquisitely a literary device to make an extreme point. Now I know Le Guin was just speaking the truth, ahead of her time: Omelas is a utopian society of perfect happiness, well-being and harmony, inhabited by virtuous and honourable people. In Omelas everything is perfect. The twist is that the city has a secret: Omelas’ all-encompassing happiness and perfection can exist only if a child is kept enslaved in perpetual darkness and squalor, sacrificed for the others. When coming of age, all the inhabitants find out about it.

We are not far from Omelas. In a way, we live in it every day. Yes, there are slaves working for each and every one of us, even if we are not told about them when we come of age. Not long ago, I found out that I had 23 slaves working for me (more about this here ). No, the abolition of slavery in the 19th century was not the end. No, it is not happening only in violent, underdeveloped, “different” countries far away. There are slaves right here, in Europe. Modern slavery is a contemporary reality and we are all partaking in it. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 21 million men, women and children around the world are in a form of slavery. This is equal to the entire population of Romania. The figure is still disputed as being too conservative.

The UK is very much aware of the issue. That is why the UK Parliament is looking at adopting a Modern Slavery Bill, which will help us get closer to addressing the issue than previous legislation. [1]

Romania is constantly in the top ten countries of origin for victims trafficked to the UK (and to the EU in general). This was most recently substantiated by data from the UK National Crime Agency [2] and from the latest European Commission Report recently published by Eurostat.[3]

Karen Bradley, the UK Minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, said: “Yet these figures show that it [modern slavery] is taking place here – often out of sight – in shops, fields, building sites and behind the curtains of houses on ordinary streets.”

Through some of their reputed institutions, Romania and the UK are making efforts to work together, in order to fight modern slavery associated with the hospitality industries. The Combat Measures against Human Trafficking in the Tourist Industry (COMBAT THB) project focuses on the hospitality and tourism industry and is coordinated by Oxford Brookes University together with the Ratiu Center for Democracy in Turda, as well as with the University of West London (UK) and Lapin University of Applied Sciences (Finland). While, according to available data, the numbers of victims are relatively small[4], the real numbers are very likely to be much higher, precisely because of the invisible nature of modern slavery. The vast majority of employers recruit people legitimately, but some firms find themselves targeted by deceitful agencies or individuals.

The core goal of this project is to study the phenomenon from a multi-disciplinary and transnational perspective, in order to provide policy recommendations and to develop a comprehensive toolkit for the tourism business. This toolkit would assist in setting up company-wide policies and procedures to identify, deter and prevent trafficking, as well as to encourage wider partnerships. The project will last for two years and it will involve all the relevant hospitality and tourism stakeholders in the design of a preventive and remedial toolkit, which will offer a unique, practical, step-by-step guide for tourism businesses to combat human trafficking.

Modern slavery can take many forms, including: physical constraints or restrictions placed on freedom of movement; forced work, through mental of physical threat; control or ownership by an employer, usually through mental or physical abuse or threat of abuse; dehumanisation and treatment as a commodity or being bought and sold as property.

Going back to Le Guin’s story: some of the citizens, upon finding out about the child, silently walk away from the city. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Now you know. Now we know. And we need to walk away from it in any way we can.

− Cora Moțoc, British Embassy in Bucharest 


[1] January 29, the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill Committee in the UK Parliament will take evidence from legal experts to consider how to define the term “modern slavery” within legislation. More details and live feed here:http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-modern-slavery-bill/news/definition-of-modern-slavery-ev-sess/

[2] The UK has ten priority human trafficking countries based on the 1,186 potential victim referrals made through the national referral Mechanism in 2012. Romania is constantly one of them, along with Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the UK itself, to name just the other European countries on the list. There are also some other countries identified as ‘Watch List’ and others considered nexus points or transit routes for trafficking to the UK. This indicates that the trafficking phenomenon is endemic and there has to be a Europe-wide effort to fight it. On September 30, 2014, the National Crime Agency has published the third annual Strategic Assessment of the Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2013. The NCA’s United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) estimates that 2,744, people, including 602 children, were potential victims of trafficking for exploitation in 2013, an increase of 22 per cent on 2012. The report lists the 10 most common countries of origin for victims, which shows Romania as the most prevalent country overall, for the third year in a row, more than half of which are exploited for sex.

[3]http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-is new/news/news/docs/20141017_working_paper_on_statistics_on_trafficking_in_human_beings_en.pdf

[4] In 2013, in the UK, 1% (7 victims) of forced labour victims referred to services came from the restaurant or bar sector, and 41% of victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation, with 4% (44 people) sexually exploited in hotels.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s