As the Quaker representative on the ACTS (Action of Churches Together Scotland) group around Anti-human trafficking I donned a red t-shirt with the slogan “re-value, people are too precious to be bought and sold” and helped with the practicalities of a conference for 80 people. The aim of the conference was to bring together people of different faiths and none and raise awareness about human trafficking and actions that we can take to challenge it.
As we heard from the first speaker, Dr Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-slavery International, human trafficking is far reaching and we are probably all wearing an item of clothing that is the result of slavery and exploitation.
There were speakers from churches across the world who are involved in tackling human trafficking and supporting victims. We heard heart breaking stories including of a girl locked into garment factories, refused permission to leave when very unwell and who died a week later. There were also tales much closer to home including conditions for the strawberry pickers in Tayside where men, usually from Eastern Europe are forced to work all day for £2 an hour, sleep in over-crowded sheds and pay their employers rent. But as well as these stories there was also hope – including how a church in Jamaica had used the experiences of victims to make a play (Where is Melissa?), helping to raise awareness around what was happening within the local community.
The day looked at what we could do, reflecting on the story of the good Samaritan. As Martin Luther King said “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’. But the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”. We as individuals can make a difference, for example being aware of the signs that victims of trafficking can show – such as being under the control of others or regularly being collected early and returned late to their house. Aidan also raised some areas where change of policy is needed in the UK – such as the system of “tied visas”. This means a person coming to the UK to work has their visa tied to their employer and cannot leave their employer without risking their right to remain in the UK. For foreign workers, particularly au pairs who are working within the family house with little or no contact with the outside world, they can be exploited and abused with no prospect of support from the state if they do escape. This was sadly not changed in the recent Modern Slavery bill.
The day ended in the uplifting singing of the African American spiritual “We shall overcome”, reminding us of past struggles against injustice and assaults on human dignity. The day reminded me of the role that Friends have always played in promoting human rights and the long history Quakers have in opposing the slave trade. Working to challenge the continued existence of slavery and people being bought and sold is an ongoing struggle that Friends have long been a part of and I hope we are able to continue to play a role in ending it for good.
If you would like more information about the work of ACTS anti-human trafficking group check out the website http://www.acts-scotland.org/activities/anti-human-trafficking