It was while sitting with a friend in a lovely art-house cinema on a Saturday afternoon in Notting Hill -two seats away from Shane Claiborne, the lanky, white dread-locked American social activist & writer whom I have long admired- that the words ‘Yum Yum’ brought me to tears. The word ‘tears’, however, does little to describe the intensity of my crying, this was weeping – anguished weeping which compelled me to sit on the floor of the darkened cinema shaking inconsolably upon hearing these words which hitherto had bought to mind happy thoughts of sugar and tasty dough. Instead of being a tempting label on a Waitrose or Tesco bakery shelf these words were being keenly spoken by the childish mouths of five-year-old Thai girls, with fake smiles on their beautiful, empty faces, as they plied their trade to male Western tourists, all of them unaware of the journalist’s hidden camera. Their ‘trade’ was sex, ‘Yum Yum’ means blow job and the girls are victims of sex slavery. And so began my impassioned journey to find out more about the evil of modern day slavery and what little old me living my busy, stressful, but ultimately tres comfortable life in Greater London can do to help stop it about.
My journey of awareness has involved reading some inspirational, challenging, disgusting and brave accounts and watching films and going to talks which have evoked the same feelings but have ultimately left me feeling more alive, more determined, more sickened, more grateful, and more wise. I now feel confident sharing some of what I know about trafficking or, more generally, modern slavery. Firstly, I know that it is the 2nd most profitable illegal industry – behind drugs but ahead of weapons and quickly moving into that top spot. Hey, it’s good business – drugs are consumed and guns sold never to be seen again but own a human and you have a reusable commodity… a woman whose body can be sold and used all day, every day, over and over, or a man whose hands can pick your farm produce every day, all day, or a child who can beg on the streets for you all day, every day, all just needing a little food plus a lot of fear and you’ve got yourself a reusable good with a lifetime guarantee-what a bargain!
Disgusted and angry as I am, I am also now aware enough to know that I am a participant in this trade… and so are you. If there were a way of checking for the fingerprints of slaves, we would see their glowing swirls leaving tracks almost every time we get dressed in the morning, order a latte, buy a chocolate bar, pass a woman begging with a baby on the tube, get our nails done, or even when we stroll past terraced houses in all kinds of neighbourhoods, whether they be near verdant well-kept parks or high-rise flats.
Men, children and overwhelmingly women are trafficked into, from, and around the UK and in every other country of the world. By ‘trafficked’, I mean that they are tricked/tempted/coerced/deceived/bullied/blackmailed/kidnapped by traffickers – the almost professional sounding name given to men and women who deal in buying and selling people as livestock – often snared by the promise of a legitimate and hope-filled job as a waitress/domestic servant/farm-hand/nanny/hairdresser or even as an ice-cream seller (yes, that one is true!). The victims are almost invariably people who are vulnerable – people who like you and me want a better life and are willing to work for it, but who never get that chance. Instead, they find themselves tricked, trapped, alone and without hope of a way out;
…the wonderful boyfriend who promised Anna* a new life in England suddenly disappears after dropping her off at that bland-enough terraced house in London, leaving her to be gang raped into submission by her new ‘owners’ as he makes his way off with her passport and his ‘fee’, already bee-lining for his next ‘girlfriend’ to woo and ensnare.
…the sweet neighbour who’s known Natasha all her life and has seen her blossom into a beautiful young woman, who was so kind in arranging for Natasha to come and stay with her on her next trip to London so she could improve her English, hasn’t returned after dropping Natasha off at the nail bar where she is now forced to work for free with a smile on her face 8am-10pm and then locked in the store cupboard with not enough room to lie-down in until the shop opens again the next morning.
…the job advert for strong farm-hands to work in the English countryside said ‘well-paid’…instead Leo is forced to pick cannabis all day, in fear of being beaten if he doesn’t pick enough, with no bed to sleep in, no freedom to leave the farm, no passport to go home, no contact with his mum and dad and ultimately no chance of escape.
…the couple who brought Abieyuwa to their home to work as their domestic help and nanny agreed a good wage and 1 day off a week; instead she sleeps on the floor in the kitchen, is never allowed out of the house, works every single day from 6am-11pm and is beaten and raped by her ‘employer’; at least Cinderella had the warmth of a fire to sit by – Abieyuwa has nothing.
These stories are snapshots about real people – people with parents, friends, talents, everyday problems, and hopes and dreams for their futures; people tricked and trapped and in need of hope and freedom. Little old me cannot close (or better yet, regulate and make safe) the factories using slaves to sew clothes for Western shops to sell for cheap prices and big profits; nor can I regulate the farms making the chocolate adorning shelves and shelves of my local supermarkets, nor can I stop girls and women being raped and forcibly prostituted so that ‘Johns’ can get a cheap shag and their ‘owners’ can get a big profit – regardless of what it costs their bodies and souls. And yet, whilst my heart feels heavy and my eyes teary as I type, I do not despair! Because with awareness comes power and opportunity; I can think before I reach for an enticing bar of Galaxy Cookie Crumble – and instead reach for the plain yet delicious Galaxy, the Rainforest Alliance certified bar which tells me the cocoa which makes it taste so gorgeous wasn’t picked by a slave (oh poor me, what a sacrifice!); I can then email Galaxy and ask them WHY is one bar of chocolate certified slave-free but not t’other? I can also now stop and think before buying a £1 T-shirt; I can consider the journey this ‘cheap’ item has been on – it’s been designed, then cut from cotton which was grown and harvested and manufactured, then sewn and shipped across the world…this costs more than £1! So I can email the company and ask what their procedures are for checking if there is slavery involved in making their products; I can sign my name on Stop the Traffik’s campaign to stop slavery in the clothing industry. (NB: many cheaper stores use the same factories as the more costly ones but regardless of the size and name of the High Street chains we shop in, they all care what their customers think as happy customers buy more and make happy shareholders!).
So, in the face of this oh-so sophisticated, pervasive and evil ‘trade’, what can we do? Well, along with doing some of the things above, we can also see websites or news articles or Facebook & Twitter posts and not cower from their painful truths but WOMAN UP and learn more about what’s happening to our sisters (and brothers) across the country and the globe. We can watch films or documentaries to learn a bit more; I love movies and books and highly recommend Human Trafficking the mini-series with Mira Sorveno, Donald Sutherland [yep, President Snow himself!] and Robert Carlisle as an engaging, thrilling intro to the situation – no, it’s not the one which made me weep! Also, the life-stirring and very inspiring book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is one I bought for nearly all of my girlfriends and Aunties when I read it 3 years ago!). We can sign petitions, get involved with local charities or groups working to fight this and we can organise fundraisers and give the money to support their work. We can spread the truth and tell others what we learn to, just maybe, stoke a fire in their hearts to oppose this.
Most of all though, we can let our hearts be softened, our eyes be open, our ears be keen, our prejudices be challenged and our habits be renewed.
*All names changed