Slave shackles. Photo: Flickr/ National Museum of American History Slave shackles. Photo: Flickr/ National Museum of American History

As Theresa May declares her intention to stamp out slavery, John Westmoreland delves into the roots of its modern form

This week the British media dutifully trumpeted Theresa May’s launch of her ‘anti-slavery crusade’. May, who was responsible for the 2015 Modern Slavery Act said, “this government is determined to build a Great Britain that works for everyone and will not tolerate modern slavery, an evil trade that shatters victims’ lives and traps them in a cycle of abuse.”

It is no coincidence that May re-announced her anti-slavery commitment this week. Not that the BBC have rushed to point it out, but there has been quite a bit of meaningful anti-slavery discussion in the Labour party this week, anti-wage slavery that is. Both sides of the Labour leadership contest have declared that zero hours contracts will not be tolerated by a future Labour government. Wage slavery is therefore under attack and a Corbyn victory can end the zero hours nightmare. Modern slavery is not an aberration from modern capitalism, it exists as a crucial part of production in the age of neoliberalism.

May wants us to believe that slavery is simply a criminal choice, related to the issue of immigration. The 2015 Act focuses on the prosecution of traffickers and the decriminalisation of the victims of slavery. These are of course welcome, but nowhere near enough to end slavery. The prosecution of traffickers is dealing with the symptom not the cause.

Slavery is defined by the International Labour Organisation as: “work or service that is exacted under a penalty, and is undertaken involuntarily”. The penalties are often violent and include beatings, rape, starvation and threats to the families of slaves. The boundaries of the definition are not sharply defined, many of us are forced to work at meaningless jobs through having no other financial protection. As benefits are slashed and rents rise we have to take the work on offer. Many workers who are not slaves give their labour under the threat of penalties.

Zero hours workers can simply have their hours cut, and when there is always a layer of workers worse off than you, ready to work in your place it gives employers huge power to reduce wages to the minimum. Slavery has always had the effect of degrading non-slave labour, and in many instances it acts to pull wages down across any sector using slave labour, for example, in textiles or food supply.

The roots of modern slavery

The cause of slavery today is capitalism. Of course slavery has been around for thousands of years. But after Europe underwent the transformations of the Reformation and the Renaissance (sometimes called the Enlightenment) where monarchies were overthrown and science became the new God, slavery should have been a relic of antiquity – you might think. Yet as capitalism emerged from the debris of feudalism the market became the supreme arbiter of economic development and slavery – the most barbaric institution of the ancient world – got a massive boost. If you like, slavery enjoyed its own Renaissance.

The opportunity to sell the products of the New World (the lands discovered by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) in European markets was irresistible. The demand for precious metals, spices, tobacco, sugar and cotton demanded in turn the opening up of new land for mining and plantation agriculture. At first Europeans enslaved the indigenous populations. They were often worked to death. Africa offered a solution to the endemic labour shortages.

Europeans visiting Africa with economic motives in mind had powerful bargaining advantages over the native population – above all muskets and cannon. They never saw any African culture or religion, and used their sense of enlightened superiority to imagine that Africans were not as human as themselves. Economic motives and the lust for profit developed an ideology to suit its ends – racism. Europeans in Africa could act without restraint. There was neither church nor government to defer to, and the latent barbarity of capitalism was given a huge boost as the possibility of acquiring vast supplies of cheap labour was revealed. Human beings were turned into a commodity for export and exploitation. The naked violence of the slavers secured a precious commodity at rock bottom prices. Like other forms of livestock slaves could be bred for sale and profit.


In the picture the slave owner is seizing the woman’s child. It is his by the laws of private property. The baby is a commodity. The whip represents the authority of the market over humanity.

The legacy of slavery

One of the consequences of slavery in the early capitalist period was that it stunted economic development in Africa, and welded racist ideology onto all European dealings with that continent. The loss of young, talented people through slavery set the economy back and gave a further impulse to imperialist conquest. At the end of the nineteenth century Europeans simply divided the continent among themselves in the so-called Scramble for Africa. The brutality of slavery continued, even if the trade in human beings had ended. Imperialism then and today is about securing profits and ruling the planet through strong racial ideas of entitlement.


These children had their hands cut off for not working hard enough. They worked on rubber plantations in the ‘Belgian Congo’. They were not slaves. The arrogance and racism generated among Europeans resulted in imperialist horror – the massacre of the Herrero people in German South West Africa and the apartheid system created by the British are but two examples.

It was the same in the USA where slavery was formally ended by the victory of the North in the American Civil War, but inequality along with murderous racism replaced it. Segregation, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan prevented Black workers from fighting alongside white workers and that division served to defeat the working class as a whole.

Slavery and neoliberalism

Theresa May will not end modern slavery. That task can only be achieved by workers’ organisations. Neoliberalism is generating slavery across the globe and in key areas of the economy. Recent research by OpenDemocracy shows that slavery plays a crucial role in modern capitalism.

OpenDemocracy’s research shows a number of important things. The creation of poverty on a global scale creates the opportunity to force human beings to labour for little more than subsistence. It is not just poverty that does this, but what the authors call poverty-as-vulnerability. The financialisation of the economy in the last 30 years has seen cuts in healthcare, education and social infrastructure – a decline in social investment. Workers who have not been invested in, are of less value in the labour market. Along with under investment in human capital the system has waged a war on human rights agencies and trade unions thus increasing vulnerability. There exists, across the world a layer of impoverished labour that can be plunged into modern slavery because it is vulnerable.

However, if the impoverishment of labour creates the supply side of slave labour, the neoliberal economy creates the demand for it. Across the planet there exist employment agencies who need immediate supplies of workers to satisfy the flow of goods to the market place. Kendra Strauss of OpenDemocracy argues that these agencies, “called ‘labour market intermediaries’ are brokers who profit from workers’ vulnerability at the bottom end of the labour market, sometimes through business models deliberately configured around practices of human trafficking and forced labour.” Thus modern corporate capitalism itself factors slave labour into production.

Textile and garment production, farming and food supply as well as fishing are mainstream economic activities that involve the use of modern slave labour. Globalisation, meaning the domination of the planet by capital, is generating inequality and slavery in its wake as the following figures from the TUC’s Slavery Fact Sheet show:


Number of slaves

Asia and the Pacific


Latin American and Caribbean


Industrial countries


Middle East and North Africa


Transition countries


Sub-Saharan Africa




These figures are only for workers who can clearly be identified as slaves. Of course the Tory government are never going to admit that neoliberal capitalism is causing slavery. One way they can avoid this truth is to narrowly define slavery by focussing on its most barbarous forms such as the use of slaves as forced sex workers or as domestic slaves. However, this form of slavery is already on the decline and is being replaced by forced employment in mainstream economic activity.

The TUC’s Slavery Fact Sheet says: “According to ILO research, the traditional ‘chattel’ form of slavery and state-sponsored forced labour is on the decline, while human trafficking and enforced labour by private agents is increasing. Although it is a severe violation of the individual’s human rights and restriction of human freedom, slave or forced labour is often ill-defined in national legislation. Penalties are weak and often not enforced. Sometimes legislative discrimination between different kinds of workers makes it difficult for people to understand or activate their rights. It is worth noting that 56 per cent of those in forced labour are women and girls, and around 40-50 per cent of all forced labour is estimated to be children.”

Therefore modern slavery originates in capitalist forms of exploitation and is maintained and practised because of the gross inequality generated by that system of production.

Theresa May wants to be seen as an anti-slavery champion, but her support for capitalism means she can never succeed. The fight against slavery has always been part of the fight for workers’ rights as Josiah Wedgwood’s iconic image on this anti-slavery medallion shows. It was produced to appeal to the working classes of industrial Britain in the language of human solidarity.


Like the abolitionists then we need to expose the full range of exploitation and the denial of our human rights that neoliberal capitalism thrives on.


John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.