What is slavery?

For many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionists, slavery was easily defined as the ownership of one human being by another. But any technical definition of enslavement is problematic, given the messy realities of coercion in practice. Forced labour exists on a spectrum from slavery to freedom, with debt labour often very similar to slavery.

The BBC reports that Anti-Slavery International and Liberty are hoping the House of Lords will pass an amendment on indentured servitude later today, with the support of Lib Dem peers:

The campaign groups argue existing employment laws and legislation covering offences such as false imprisonment are inadequate.

They hope to see two new offences created – one of holding someone in servitude, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and a second offence of forced labour, punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison.

A proposed amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill has the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, as well as the Unite union and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

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This entry was posted in News and Parliament.


  • Lester Holloway 26th Oct '09 - 4:22pm

    To many people the word slavery means the brutal capture of millions of Africans, keeping and transporting them in horrific conditions, killing those who rebelled, throwing hundreds of thousands overboard who died enroute. I labour on these points for one simple reason; to equate the African Holocaust with domestic servitude in Britain today is simply ridiculous.

    I believe passionately that such servitude needs to be outlawed, but to call this slavery is an insult to all those who died and suffered.

  • Liberal Neil 26th Oct '09 - 4:32pm

    Lester – so you agree with the proposal then?

  • Tom Papworth 26th Oct '09 - 4:39pm

    Strictly speaking, slavery to me is a legal framework that enables one person to own the other as property, to dispose of as they wish. In this sense, slavery is already illegal in (I think) the whole world.

    Having said that, I have seen a powerful presentation by Cllr Pete Patterson about the realities of de facto slavery.

    I’m not sure I understand why a new law is needed in the UK to prohibit “holding someone in servitude… and a… forced labour…” To my mind, these are already covered by laws against kidnap and coercion.

  • Lester Holloway 26th Oct '09 - 4:39pm

    Yes, forced labour is something that needs regulation. As I said: “I believe passionately that such servitude needs to be outlawed”

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 26th Oct '09 - 7:02pm

    The important definition of slavery between the sexes as stated by J.S. Mill that women were treated, as being unequal before men in the `Subjection of Women’ 1869 he said,

    `Marraige is the only actual bondage known in our law.There remains no legal slaves exept the mistress of every house-the family is the school of despotism,in which the virtues of despotism but also its vices are chiefly nourished’.

    It had been Thomas Fowell Buxton Liberal M.P. who had read the final peroration in Parliament on the abolition of the evil of the trading of international slavery in 1833, on the high seas in the commonwealth and he is buried,in the Buxton family tomb, at St John`s Church in Leytonstone,in Waltham Forest.

    This great antislavery Liberal M.P. is also commemorated in Westminster Abbey.

  • I was amused that Labour are not supporting this amendment because they feel that it’s already covered by existing law. Actually I think they might be correct, but that’s never stopped them before, has it?

  • Lester Holloway 2nd Nov '09 - 11:26am

    @Niklas, call me Lester! You say that “slavery is not defined by the brutality inflicted on slaves; it is defined by the status of unfreedom”, but I say to you that that depends on who is doing the defining.

    To many whose ancestors were indeed enslaved Africans, those who recognise and live with the legacies of enslavement, I suggest that their definitions may well not be as academic and detatched as those who categorise it as the status of unfreedom.

    Those who have visited Elmina’s Castle, for instance, may not refer first to a Wikipedia definition, but to their heart.

    I don’t know whether “servitude” is a nebulous term or not, but I do know that whatever term is used, a different one needs to be found to seperate it from the kind of enslavement that is characterised by unspeakable brutality.

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