Illustration of slave in the mask and shackles used by Europeans to imprison them.
Earlier this week I reblogged a piece from The Void, reporting @refuted’s uncovering of George Osborne’s proposals to expand workfare. Under this new scheme, compulsory workfare, directed by the Jobcentre, would include those in part-time work and the disabled. Those already doing voluntary work would also be forced to go on workfare, and work elsewhere, if their supervisors decided that their current unpaid employment was not appropriate. This is all alarming enough, but what is particularly abhorrent is the plan force even those, who receive no benefits at all, into workfare.
I’ve blogged before about the similarity between workfare and slavery. At the moment although workfare is degrading and exploitative, it is not yet actual, literal slavery. Osborne’s proposal to make those without benefits do it tips it over into the real thing.
From Top: David Cameron, George Osborne, Ian Duncan Smith and Esther McVey. Their workfare schemes mark the reintroduction of slavery to Britain after 173 years.
Slavery comes in a variety of different forms, some less malign than others. Most people know about Western chattel slavery, but there are other forms, such as serfdom, and various types of bonded, indentured or customary labour. The villeins of medieval Europe were serfs, who were tied to their land. In return for their holdings, they were expected to perform a certain numbers of days’ labour on their masters demein. When so working, they were supervised by the beadle, the lord’s steward, who held a cudgel or whip as a symbol of his authority and his right to beat them. They could not marry without asking the permission of their lord, and were required to pay a fee – the merchet – when they did. As the law considered them subhuman, the legal terminology for their families did not dignify them with the human term. Instead they were called ‘sequelae’ – ‘broods’. When they died, the lord of the manor took their ‘best beast’ – their best cow. These were the conditions that led to the Peasants’ Revolt in England in the 14th century, and similar peasant rebellions in the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. Serfdom in England eventually withered away as customary work was commuted into cash payments. Despite this, the last English serf died in the mid-seventeenth century.
Serfdom continued to survive in the rest of Europe into the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was finally abolished in France during the French Revolution. It survived in parts of Germany until the 1820s, and in Russia until 1865, when they were liberated by Tsar Alexander II.
Bonded Labour in Scots Mining
Although serfdom and slavery did not exist in English law, other forms of servitude certainly did exist in Britain in eighteenth and nineteenth century. The coal miners in Scotland were bonded labourers, not quite slaves, but still considered the property of the mine owners. Needless to say, the British and particularly the Scots aristocracy and business elite viewed with alarm the solidarity these White slaves showed towards their Black counterparts in the West Indies and elsewhere. There was also little racism amongst White miners towards their Black colleagues, as they were all, regardless of their colour, exploited slaves working in dangerous and horrific conditions.
Global Slavery in Late 20th and 21st Centuries
Horrifically, slavery has survived into the 21st century. The book Disposable People, published in the 1990s, describes the various forms of slavery that existed in the closing decade of the 20th century, and which still blights humanity today. Traditional, chattel slavery exists in Mauretania. Bonded labour is used Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, the labourers are low-cast Muslims – the Sheiks – and Christians in the brick industry. Then there is the horrific conditions for the workers and women forced into prostitution in the industrial towns and logging camps in south-east Asia, such as Thailand. It also exists in Brazil, where recent documentaries have shown government organisations and police units raiding and freeing slaves held captive in compounds. In this country, several farmers have been prosecuted for enslaving illegal immigrants to the UK, holding them virtual prisoners in horrific conditions and paying them 20p per week. Migrant workers from Pakistan, India, the Phillipines and Africa are also treated as slaves in the Gulf Arab states. The law in these countries states that foreigners entering the country must have a personal sponsor responsible for them. When these labourers enter the Gulf Arab states to work, their employers immediately seize their passports. They are then housed in appalling workers’ barracks, and forced to work extremely long hours in the blazing heat with little protection or medical care. Many of the personal staff rich Arabs take to serve them when they go to live in the West are also treated as slaves. Again, their employers take their passports and other documents, and force them to work extremely long hours, and are beaten as a punishment for any kind of unsatisfactory behaviour. One of the case histories in the book is of a maid for an Arab woman in London, who was forced to stand at the door, waiting for her mistress’ return when she went out, no matter how long the mistress was absent. On her return, the maid was expected to massage her hands, and struck and abused if this was not done properly.
Enslavement of African Children by Foster Parents
Slavery also exists through the custom of some African peoples of sending their children to be fostered by wealthier relatives. The motive for this is clearly the expectation that the child will have better opportunities through living and growing up in the household of a family member, who is wealthier and better educated. Unfortunately, the opposite is frequently true. African children, who have been sent to stay with their richer relations in Africa and in Europe, have found themselves enslaved and abused by the very people their parents trusted to look after them. The Victoria Climbie case, in which a young African girl sent to live with a relative in London was eventually abused and killed by the woman and her partner was national news, shocking and disgusting the British public. Unfortunately, it is one instance of a wider pattern of abuse amongst some African immigrants.
The book estimated that there were about 20 million slaves around the world. My guess is that this number has massively expanded in the past two decades. The Independent newspaper a week or so ago stated that there were 25 million prostitutes, who were practically enslaved by ruthless recruiters and pimps, across Europe today. Furthermore, while the elites in the Developing World have become, like their counterparts in the West, massively rich, the poor has become much poorer. They are now working longer hours, for less pay, and in worse conditions. In countries like China industry also uses cheap labour from prisoners and the political inmates in forced labour camps. There are 60 million people kept in these political gulags across China. Disposable People stated that there are difficulties estimating the true number of slaves across the world, and freeing them because slavery is frequently disguised under a number of covers, such as long term labour contracts.
Similarity Between Workfare and 19th Century ‘Negro Apprenticeship’
George Osborne’s proposals for the expansion of workfare is, I believe, similarly disguised system of slavery. Especially, and blatantly when the proposed scheme does not allow those placed on it to be given welfare benefit.
I’ve also blogged before now on the close similarity between Cameron, Osborne and IDS’ workfare, and similar schemes used in Nazi Germany to solve unemployment and provide cheap labour for industry. It is also extremely similar to ‘Negro Apprenticeship’, a form of servitude that effectively extended the enslavement of Blacks in some of the British colonies beyond the formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1837.
The authorities in Britain and some of the larger Caribbean colonies, which were sparsely populated with abundant uncultivated land, such as Jamaica, feared that the liberation of their slave populations would result in economic and social collapsed. They believed that unless suitable steps were taken, the former slaves would abandon their former masters’ estates and withdraw to occupy the unused land. It was believed that the slaves were idle. The land in Jamaica was extremely fertile, so it would be possible for a man to support himself and his family by only working three days a week. They were therefore afraid that the freed slaves would simply return to subsistence agriculture, which would support only themselves and their families. The commercial economy of these colonies, based on the export of sugar, would therefore collapse, and a prosperous, civilised nation would fall into poverty and barbarism. The authorities attempted to prevent this by instituting a period of ‘apprenticeship’ following the formal abolition of slavery in 1837. Under its provisions, the former slaves would continue to work on their masters’ plantations over a period of four to seven years. During this period the amount of time they spent working for their masters would be gradually reduced, until they were finally free, independent men and women. In practice, however, this staggering did not occur, and they continued effectively work as slaves until 1840.
The Apprenticeship system was greeted with outrage by the slaves themselves, and White and free Coloured abolitionists in the Caribbean and Europe. The government was particularly alarmed when placards denouncing Negro Apprenticeship were put up on the walls in Birmingham. Public pressure forced the government to act, and Negro Apprenticeship was eventually ended.
There are several points of similarity between 19th century post-slavery Negro Apprenticeship, and Osborne’s workfare.
1. Both systems assume that those subject to them are idle and socially irresponsible. The point of such schemes is ostensibly to prepare those on them – former slaves in the 19th century, unemployed workers in the 21st, to become independent, self-reliant, responsible members of society.
2. In both systems, the worker’s personal freedom is removed, and they are expected to work for others for no or little pay. The fact that at the moment, most people on workfare receive some kind of benefit does not necessarily disqualify it as a system of slavery. As the plantation system became firmly established in the Caribbean in the 18th century, so skilled slave artisans were frequently hired out by their masters to work for others in return for wages. Moreover, medieval serfs and slaves in the British Caribbean possessed their own plots of land, on which they could work for themselves. Medieval law termed this land, which the serf cultivated for himself, his peculium. This is paralleled in 21st century by those in voluntary or part-time work elsewhere, whom Osborne now wishes to force into workfare. You could also make out a case for the agencies, like Ingeneus, that administer the workfare schemes, as forming the 21st century equivalent of those slave masters, who hired out their skilled slaves.
3. Both systems are based on providing cheap labour to support the countries’ national economy and big business. In the 19th century this consisted of forcing the former slaves to work for their plantation masters. In early 21st century Britain this means sending the unemployed to stack shelves in Sainsbury’s, or any of the other major firms that sign up to his scheme.
Finally, there is a further parallel between 19th century slavery and the Tories’ campaign to drive down working conditions and raise working hours. Both were partly based on the argument that this must be done in order to maintain the British industrial competitiveness. One of the arguments used by the opponents of abolition in the 19th century was that the abolition of slavery would make British sugar too expensive to compete globally with foreign, slave produced sugar. Similarly, the authors of Britannia Unchained declared that British workers were too lazy and pampered to compete with countries like India and China, where labour is cheaper and works much longer hours.
Priti Patel, Britannia Unchained, Workfare and the ‘Coolie Trade‘
If one wished to bring race into this, one could argue that Priti Patel, one of the authors of Britannia Unchained, is an ‘Uncle Tom’. Patel is Asian, and her arrival and rise in the Conservative Party was greeted by the Daily Mail as showing that the Conservative Party were embracing the Black and Asian community. On their part, the British Blacks and Asians were also putting aside their racial resentments, to play a role in wider British society. It was hinted that the policy of racial resentment was exclusively the province of the Left, which was simply interested in picking over past grievances for its own, purely sectional gain.
I’ve described Osborne’s expanded workfare scheme as ‘a new system of slavery’ in this post’s title. This was quite deliberate. From 1817 onwards the British government attempted to find labourers elsewhere to replace the Black plantation slaves. Black slaves resented their enslavement, and were perceived as recalcitrant workers. They were also inclined to rebel. Hence the title of one of Dr. Richard Hill’s books, The Blacks Who Defeated Slavery, if I remember the title correctly. After Abolition, they attempted to find other peoples, who would supply cheap labour to the plantations in place of the former slaves. The result was the infamous ‘Coolie Trade’ in indentured immigrants to the Caribbean from China, and what is now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. These were in theory free. In return for their years’ of work on the plantations, they would receive wages and a grant of land. In practice they were ruthlessly exploited, working extremely long hours in poor conditions. The death rate could be extremely high, and contact with their families and loved ones in their homelands was frequently non-existent. Wives and children of indentured labourers often could not hear from their husbands and fathers for 20 years or so. Many were the victims of kidnappers, and forced into slavery across the kala pani – the Black Waters surrounding India. Leading British politicians denounced the Coolie Trade as ‘a new system of slavery’, which forms the title of the history of the trade by Hugh Tinker. I urge anyone with an interest in this black chapter of British imperial history to read it. I am certainly not suggesting that Patel and her colleagues are advocating replacing British workers with those from China, the Indian sub-continent, or elsewhere in the Developing World. What I am saying is that Patel and the other authors of Britannia Unchained wish to import the systems of exploitation in these countries to British workers. And that includes Asian and Black Brits, whose parents and grandparents came to this country in the hope of finding work that was better paid and in better conditions, than those in their countries of origin. Patel is destroying the aspirations of her parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and in that sense surely well deserves to be called an Uncle Tom.
The parallels between 19th century slavery and Osborne’s plans for workfare are now so close, that I believe it may be worthwhile contacting human rights organisations like Anti-Slavery International about them, and campaigning against them as literal slavery. Anti-Slavery International is a charity dedicated to combatting slavery throughout the world. In 1995 the exhibition ‘A Respectable Trade’ held by City Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol on the city’s past as a major slave port included pamphlets by Anti-Slavery International, and donation and membership forms for those wishing to continue the fight of great liberators like Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce. Amongst their pamphlets on slavery were those on exploitative working conditions in the UK, including child labour. Osborne’s workfare should surely be of concern to anyone opposed to seeing slavery revived in any form whatsoever.
‘Capital and Labour’: a bitter cartoon from Punch from 1842, showing the luxury enjoyed by the rich contrasted with the poverty and squalor endured by the labouring poor which support them. This is kind of system Cameron and co. wish to restore.
I’ve mentioned a number of excellent books on slavery and the ‘Coolie Trade’ in this post. Other excellent books include Hugh Thomas’ Slavery, Dr Richard Hill’s Blacks in Bondage and Blacks in Freedom, written by a former member of the Jamaican independence movement, and Bill Yenne’s illustrated book, Slavery, published by Buffalo Books. This last contains some truly horrific photographs from the 19th century of slaves, who were abused and mutilated