Abolition of the Slave Trade

Slavery today

Image of Momtaz (12 years old) from Bangladesh. She has to work with her mother in a rice mill.

Scotland and contemporary issues of slavery

The year 2007 is the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act. This was a historic action of great importance in the history of our country and much of the rest of the world. However, it would be wrong to assume that slavery no longer exists.

This is a very appropriate time to consider both the forms that slavery takes in the modern world, including Scotland, and the legacy left to us by the historic transatlantic slave trade.

Use this resource to research what is happening in the world today, and to consider what a modern 'abolitionist' would campaign for.

Key issues

  • Contemporary forms of slavery
  • The legacy of racism and discrimination in Scotland
  • The legacy of poverty and inequality in African and Caribbean countries, and our relationship as consumers

Contemporary forms of slavery

Although 1807 saw the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slavery still exists throughout the world today. Millions of men, women and children are forced to work, often under the threat of violence, for little or no pay, and may even be traded or sold as property.

One of the fastest growing ways by which people can be forced into slavery is through human trafficking. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was founded in 1919 to work for the promotion of social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights, and became the first United Nations specialised agency in 1946.

ILO estimates that 2.5 million people are being trafficked into forced labour in many countries throughout the world, including the UK. Their film Child Labour outlines the plight of 200 million child labourers throughout the world; of these, 100 million are in the worst forms of bonded labour, slavery, serfdom, prostitution and armed conflict.

Anti-Slavery International is the world's oldest international human rights organisation (founded in 1839) and the only charity in the United Kingdom to work exclusively against slavery and related abuses. The organisation states that the majority of people trafficked in the UK enter legally. Once here, however, traffickers typically use debt bondage - telling victims they must work to pay for the cost of their travel, for instance - to subject victims to forced labour in areas such as agriculture, construction, domestic service, food packaging and prostitution.

Various news reports have highlighted the problem of human trafficking in Scotland:

Photograph of child domestic workers

Amnesty International (AI) is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognised human rights. AI Scotland's 'Briefing on Trafficking of Women into Prostitution' reports that since January 2005 there have been 112 suspected cases of trafficked women in Glasgow from over 26 nationalities. The information available on trafficking in Scotland, it suggests, may only show the tip of the iceberg.

Although the scale of child trafficking in Scotland is not truly known, Save the Children found evidence of children being trafficked into Scotland to work in the sex industry and as domestic slaves - Child slaves trafficked to Scotland.

Anti-Slavery International's UK report, Trafficking for Forced Labour, explored trafficking in sectors other than the sex industry. Forced labour was found not only in the cities of Central Scotland, it reported, but in industries using migrant labour in the North of Scotland.

Racism and discrimination in Scotland

A racist ideology was common during the time of the slave trade as white Europeans tried to justify the treatment of enslaved peoples. Scots owned slaves both here and in the colonies and some may have witnessed the dehumanisation of slaves through acts such as renaming, flogging, branding and selling slaves as products. Africans were viewed as inferior and 'blackness' acquired negative connotations.

Research on attitudes today appears to indicate that a background of racist beliefs still wields a powerful influence over many Scots.

Poverty and Inequality in Africa and the Caribbean

The transatlantic slave trade contributed to the legacy of poverty and inequality in African and Caribbean countries today. Many African countries lost millions of their productive young people through forced transportation. Caribbean countries did not benefit economically from slavery and struggled to provide employment to ex-slaves after emancipation.

Extreme poverty leaves people vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, the expectation of low cost goods by people in the rich world can further harm poor communities. The subsequent demand for cheap labour leaves children particularly vulnerable to slavery.

Schemes such as Fairtrade, Rugmark and the Ethical Trading Initiative work to eradicate child labour and improve the conditions of those producing goods for consumers in the UK. They aim to help consumers use their power to benefit producers. Many schools have responded to this situation by setting up fair trade groups.


Picture credits

Black and white photograph of Momtaz (12 years old). She lives in a village near Bogra, in northern Bangladesh. She used to go to a non-formal school run by Proshika (a Non-Governmental Organisation) but stopped to be able to work with her mother in a rice mill.

Copyright Child Trafficking, Photographers include Tomas l Kelly, Mani Lama and Achinto.

Colour photograph of 12- and 8-year-old child domestic workers employed in the home of a Kolkata family. These children live with their own families in Kolkata. The 8-year-old has been employed as a child domestic worker since the age of 5. Both girls attend a Right Track drop-in centre and now attend school.

Copyright Tom Pietrasik, Save the Children.