The slave trade, past and present

Stephen Beard Mar 23, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: In Britain this weekend, there’ll be a series of events marking a key moment in history. Both theirs and ours. Two hundred years ago Sunday, the British Parliament abolished the European slave trade. Millions of Africans were transported to plantations in North and South America and the Caribbean before the Act of Abolition was passed.

But even as Britain celebrates its role in history, it’s also facing up to an embarrassing present. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from London.

STEPHEN BEARD: Among the events commemorating the abolition of the slave trade is the premiere of a musical: “Cargo.”

CARGO: Imagine you’re a slave. It’s 1787. You work 14 hours a day . . .

But the musical doesn’t dwell on the 18th century. Composer Paul Field says much of it is about today.

PAUL FIELD: What I felt kind of compelled to do, really, was to use the historical platform of the story of the abolitionists as the springboard, really, to raise awareness of what still goes on.

Slavery may have been abolished, but it certainly hasn’t been eradicated. Not even in Britain, as the British police dramatically confirmed last year.

[SOUND: Policemen shouting in a raid]

Officers raided dozens of brothels and rescued 84 young, foreign women and girls who’d been brought to Britain and forced to work as prostitutes. The government reckons at least 4,000 foreign women have been trafficked to Britain in this way.

Women like Maria, who speaks here through an interpreter.

MARIA (voice of interpreter): I’ve been trafficked twice from Albania. The traffickers forced me into prostitution. I mean, I’ve been beaten up, I’ve been raped, I’ve been through prostitution. I’ve been forced, abused.

Often, women like Maria have been lured to Britain with the promise of a job in a hotel or restaurant. As soon as they arrive here, they are sold — yes, sold — to another trafficker for up $20,000. They will then be set to work in a brothel earning their “slave masters” as much as $1,500 a day.

They’re carefully guarded, says Frances Brodrick.

FRANCES BRODRICK: Women are very much viewed as commodities and investments. So if a woman escapes early on after being trafficked, then the traffickers get even more violent and even more desperate to recover her and get their money’s worth.

[SOUND: Answering the phone: “Hello, Poppy Project . . . “]Brodrick runs a project which provides support for women who manage to break free from the traffickers. Britain now has an unenviable reputation in Europe, she says.

BRODRICK: The U.K.’s a top destination country. And this has changed over the past five years. It used to be Germany. And now, it’s the U.K. So it just kind of asks the question, why the U.K? What is it about the U.K.?

One explanation could the country’s buoyant economy. Another could be slack border controls.

At a news conference to highlight the problem of human trafficking, Opposition Conservative spokesman David Davies cited the case of a 16-year-old African girl.

DAVID DAVIES: She arrived in the United Kingdom aged 14 with a middle-aged white man, with a passport that wasn’t hers, didn’t even have her photo in it. She entered the country without being challenged at the airport. She was locked in a flat, raped, forced to have sex with many men. She managed to escape. And in that respect, she’s one of the lucky ones.

VIDEO NARRATOR: Trafficking in human beings. One of the best-kept secrets of the criminal underworld.

This video was made by Anti-Slavery International. The group has been campaigning to stamp out slavery since 1839. With 12 million people still in forced labor around the world, it has a long way to go.

But today, it got some encouraging news on the home front. With Sunday’s anniversary looming, the British government has just announced a fresh crackdown on trafficking. Tighter border controls and more sympathetic help for the victims. People like Maria, who just want to be free.MARIA: Just lead a normal life without any trauma. Without any pains, without any troubles and pressures from others. I just want happiness and to be safe and have my freedom.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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