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Churches must challenge the systems that cultivate modern slavery, webinar in Wales hears

15 October 2020

National Crime Agency

An exhibition of photographs portraying the signs of modern slavery and exploitation opened in the new Dean’s Green garden, outside Lincoln Cathedral, on Monday

An exhibition of photographs portraying the signs of modern slavery and exploitation opened in the new Dean’s Green garden, outside Lincoln Cathedral,...

CHURCH communities and people of faith must challenge the systems and structures that have allowed modern slavery to become the fastest-growing crime around the world, a panel of international experts and activists told a webinar hosted by the Church in Wales in advance of Modern Slavery Day on Sunday.

The speakers concluded that it had to be about more than raising awareness of something in which services and products used every day were implicated: manufacturing supply chains, casual labour, and sexual and criminal exploitation. Statutory systems were fragmented and not working well, despite the Modern Slavery Act and the introduction of the National Referral Mechanism, they said; “pitifully small” numbers of perpetrators were being brought to justice.

An estimated 40.3 million men, women, and children worldwide are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery, among them potentially up to 136,000 victims in the UK alone. “We are losing the battle,” the former Bishop of Derby, Dr Alastair Redfern, founder of the C of E’s Clewer Initiative on modern slavery, said. He described it as “the sharp end of inequality”. There was a “massively strange silence” among Christian people, he said, in a climate in which consumers wanted cheap goods and claimed rights without responsibilities.

Awareness was not enough, panellists said. Unity was the greatest weapon against trafficking, said Commissioner Christine MacMillan, who is the founder and director of the Salvation Army’s International Social Justice Commission, and chairs the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Human Trafficking Task Force.

She described the work of the Salvation Army in Mexico, where the children of women working night shifts had been unprotected at night and vulnerable to kidnap by traffickers. “The best way was to start night care — placing children safely in homes in the community while their mothers worked. NGOs and faith communities didn’t have to build [special facilities],” she said, emphasising the need to understand the perspectives of all the different stakeholders.

The system was not fit for its purpose: “It is us who must push for change,” the Joint Regional President of Soroptimist International in Cheshire, North Wales and Wirral, Pam Cheesley-Hollinhead, said. The Soroptimists had identified the importance of asking questions to elicit the facts. Projects such as Glass House were systematically gathering information from supermarkets and businesses about their supply chains.

“Do the research, share information, ask everything about where supplies come from, gather statistics, write letters and emails; approach police and crime commissioners, chief constables, local authorities, MPs, the Home Office, first-responder agencies,” she urged. The Llandudno Soroptimists had dedicated themselves to getting answers from the Government on the procurement of PPE made abroad.

Kevin Hyland, the UK’s first Anti-Slavery Commissioner, now Senior Adviser to the Santa Marta Group, an alliance of international police chiefs and bishops working to combat modern slavery, said that 151,600,000 children worldwide were in exploitative labour. While 10,600 victims had been referred under the Modern Slavery Act, only 780 had been positively identified as victims of modern trafficking.

“People get lost in the system,” he said. “The system doesn’t know where they are. This is not a system.

“Know what the issues are. Come up with solutions. Reset the moral compass. Ensure that government procurement is not ending up in the hands of slave masters. Create a notion of tainted money. If you run a business, if someone is creating revenue for you, do you not take sanctions? This is where faith comes in.”

Church communities, he said, could use their organisations and networks to identify people with the language skills and cultural knowledge to find ways in which to interact with and relate to workers in, for instance, a car wash or nail bar.

Speakers acknowledged that the centralisation of the national referral system was a challenge. Identifying a victim could be cloaked in secrecy or data protection, and there was also the bigger picture of the involvement of the National Crime Agency when victims got moved around. Information needed to be held locally if communities were to be able to help.

“This is not a blame game,” Mr Hyland emphasised. “But we must start to hold the system to account. We need to make sure it pursues the criminal. We need the spirit of William Wilberforce, and the Church can lead on this collaboration.”

One of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals calls for the “taking of immediate and effective measures” to combat modern slavery. The Goals could not be isolated, Commissioner MacMillan said. When there were victims starving to death, trafficking was linked to economic inequality and also to religious persecution. “We need to be flexible, light on our feet, collaborative. It takes everyone,” she said.

The Church had convening power, Dr Redfern suggested. “People generally think that we’re on the side of goodness, but we are not experts. We have to be bolder at inviting different perspectives into the space. Ask ‘What are the police, the NGOs, the local authorities struggling with?’ Bring them togetherm because we all want good things to happen. The Beatitudes are in every human heart.”

The Bishop of St Davids, the Rt Revd Joanna Penberthy, who is the lead bishop for Church and Society in the Church in Wales, which has committed itself to challenging the structures and systems related to modern slavery, spoke about the questions raised by short-term funding, which, she urged, should not be project-based, but integrated into the daily business of the Church.

Mr Hyland recalled the global outcry prompted by the images of a fleeing Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2015. “Where are their tears now?” he asked. “It was rhetoric.” Nothing would change until people felt that the slavery issue was “hitting them in the stomach. We need to look at it in the same way as rape.”

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