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Modern Slavery – A Blight On Society

This year I had the opportunity to undertake a course called Hidden Voices - training about how to spot modern slavery. Organised by Transforming Plymouth Together and delivered by the Clewer Initiative it was a real eye-opener as to the malicious, dehumanising practice that is far more widespread than I had thought.

As we get into the winter months staff and volunteers at night shelters are being urged to be on the lookout for signs of modern slavery among guests in a campaign launched by the Church of England.

Posters and flyer to raise awareness of the dangers of modern slavery are to be distributed to winter night shelters across the country as part of the national Let’s Talk initiative is encouraging staff and volunteers at night shelters and other outreach services such as soup kitchens to report concerns where possible to the Modern Slavery Helpline or to local support services.

The human cost of modern slavery is enormous, affecting individuals (men, women and children) as well as communities. The Together Network run by Church Urban Fund has the contacts and resources to develop practical responses at local level and is working with partners to develop and support projects and share our experiences and models of best practice with communities which are looking for ways to tackle the issues.

One of the big questions for Christians and the church is why is the bible silent in its condemnation of slavery? Those who argued against the abolition of slavery in the 19th century repeatedly made the point that the bible nowhere forbade the holding of slaves. If true what are we to make of the bible’s apparent silence on such a critical issue?

Sadly, slavery is not part of history, it is very much part of our present. Across the world modern slavery does not merely persist; it flourishes. Modern slavery takes many forms: human trafficking, child labour, sex workers, unpaid domestic servitude, bonded labourers, and those forced into marriage.

Modern slavery is not something that happens elsewhere. The estimate of the number of suspected victims of trafficking and modern slavery in Britain has risen tenfold from 13,000 in 2013, to 136,000 in 2018. Last year, there were 5,145 cases reported in the UK – the highest on record – and 41% involved children under 18. Slavery is still very much a live issue. It has been for much of human civilisation.

When Paul declares in Gal 3.28 that ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ is revolutionary. This is a declaration that the things which define and divide us cease to be definitive because the primary identity of Christians is rooted in Christ, where all human hierarchies cease.

That logic confers dignity on all persons because all have the potential of belonging to God. Indeed, the whole argument of Paul’s letter to Philemon is that his slave Onesimus is no longer just a slave but also a brother in Christ. That new identity supersedes his cultural social status. So, whilst the bible does not explicitly say ‘Thou shalt not enslave’ it certainly undermines the practice.

Slavery is not only incompatible with Christian practice, it is incompatible with any understanding of what it means to have a shared humanity and a shared commitment to justice.

Recently, the National Crime Agency stated that Modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK is "far more prevalent than previously thought", estimating that it is now affecting "every large town and city in the country".

Transforming Communities Together is an active part of the Wolverhampton Anti-Slavery Partnership (WASP), which aims to identify and support victims of modern slavery in a multi-agency, collaborative way. It also identifies and seeks to bring offenders to justice. The partnership is chaired by West Midlands Police and includes practitioners from the third sector, church, faith groups, law enforcement and statutory partners. This model has been so successful, that Wolverhampton’s work is now being replicated across the other West Midlands Police force areas.

What could it look like for churches to join together with local charities to raise awareness of modern slavery, protect those who are vulnerable, and welcome the survivors into their communities?

It is surely through partnerships and the help of communities, charities and churches that we can identify more victims and see lives changed.

Matt Adcock

Head of Communications, Church Urban Fund