Combating slavery

writings of Equiano Olaudah

Olaudah Equiano contributed greatly to anti-slavery campaigns. 7#169; National Museums Liverpool

Until the mid-1990s, it was widely thought that slavery was a thing of the past. This complacent belief has now been challenged by human rights campaigners, who have helped people understand that forms of contemporary slavery still exist. More than 100 governments have recently drafted new anti-slavery laws - especially concerning human trafficking. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), especially in the global south, where more victims of contemporary slavery live, have been particularly active in raising these issues. And more longstanding NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have highlighted instances of contemporary slavery within their broader work on human rights issues around the world.

From yesterday's abolitionists...

Sweatshop workers from 1909

Young sweatshop workers in America, 1909, wearing slogans in English and Yiddish demanding: "Abolish child slavery!". Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-06591

Historical opposition to slavery came from two main sources: enslaved Africans and abolitionists (people who were not enslaved but were committed to ending slavery). Despite the dangers involved for the slaves, there were many slave revolts on plantations and estates. Some slaves escaped and established independent communities outside European control. Others took up arms and secured their freedom on the battlefield. Wherever slavery came to an end, both slaves and former slaves were central to the story.

Transatlantic slavery was a system for acquiring and sustaining colonies, strengthening empire, and building industrial strength in the home country. This meant that abolitionists were taking on powerful economic interests. Slave owners claimed that slavery was both morally and religiously justified. But the pressure from the abolitionist campaign eventually succeeded, and lawmakers acted to outlaw slavery.

The movement exposing and opposing slavery used many strategies and tactics.

  • Ex-slaves gave powerful testimony in speeches and writings, making the case against slavery
  • Abolitionists wrote articles and pamphlets, and gave sermons and lectures against slavery
  • People signed petitions calling for an end to slavery
  • People boycotted goods made by slave labour, such as the 300,000 people who joined a boycott of sugar grown on plantations using slave labour. Pamphlets encouraged the public to buy sugar made by free labour instead
  • Objects featuring the image of a kneeling, chained, enslaved African were bought by women and used in bracelets and hairpins to publicise their support for the cause
  • In America, "underground railroad" activists helped spirit escaped slaves to safety and assisted them in rebuilding their lives. Some opponents of slavery allowed their homes to be used as "stations" - places of refuge for escaped slaves where they could get food, shelter and money. Some others operated as "conductors", using covered wagons or carts with false bottoms to carry slaves undetected between stations. today's campaigners

James Kofi Annan

Activist, James Kofi Annan, sold as a child into slavery in Ghana, alongside Desmond Tutu at the Freedom Awards in Los Angeles, 2008. Courtesy of Free the Slaves/Amy Graves

Activists campaigning against contemporary slavery have developed up-to-date versions of these tactics, such as newspaper and web articles, reports, books with modern testimony of enslaved people, films, petitions and protests.

Anti-Slavery International recently launched a campaign on "Cotton Crimes" - attempting to end the use of child slave labour in the Uzbekistan cotton industry. Uzbekistan is the third biggest exporter of cotton in the world but uses forced child labour during the three month cotton harvest. Most Uzbek cotton is sold to the European market. Its campaigning tactics include a Europe-wide petition, organising letter writing to Members of the European Parliament, and letters for shoppers to write to retailers to ascertain whether or not they are selling products using cotton produced by slave labour.

Trafficking survivor distributes cartoon

Trafficking survivor in Nepal distributing cartoons in a village to help vulnerable, often illiterate, girls avoid traffickers. Courtesy of

"Another campaign led by Anti-Slavery International is called "Home Alone", which aims to inform the wider public about the situation of domestic workers, many of whom endure contemporary slavery, in order to challenge these practices. The campaign educates people about the issues through fact sheets and posters, and through film clips in which domestic workers share their stories.

The Fairtrade Foundation and GoodWeave are examples of campaigns where consumers are encouraged to use their power to deny profits to those using slave labour. Plantations seeking a fair trade label for their products must guarantee that no forced or child labour is used in making them. Activists in Britain and other countries campaign to win "Fairtrade Town" status for their local area, and use an annual campaigning period called "Fairtrade Fortnight" as a major focus for their work to educate and influence consumers.

GoodWeave provides certification for products of South Asia's handmade rug industry. Millions of such rugs are sold to the European and American markets. The GoodWeave label guarantees that no illegal child labour has been used in the product.

There are also direct action movements and legal campaigners such as the Bonded Labour Liberation Front and Bachpan Bachao Andolan who attempt to liberate contemporary slaves from places where they are held, and support them to rebuild their lives. They combine secret operations - "raids" - to free children from illegal labour, with public campaigning through lobbying and demonstrations.

Just as in previous centuries, the powerful voices of those who are or have themselves been enslaved are inspiring campaigns for justice. Many individuals who have achieved freedom from contemporary slavery have set up or joined support groups and campaigning organisations to help win freedom and dignity for those who continue to be enslaved.