Their heads were shaved. They were forced to perform long hours of labour on an inadequate diet. They lived in squalor, bedding often covered in excrement. They were rarely given an opportunity to wash. They were threatened with violence, even death, if they attempted to escape.
Where are we? Is this Nazi Europe? Is this the 1940s? Is this Dachau or Buchenwald? No, it is not: it’s England in 2012; it’s the county of Bedfordshire, one of the most prosperous in the country. There, near the town of Leighton Buzzard, vulnerable men were kept in conditions that one described as akin to a concentration camp.
Six years ago Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, apologised for England’s role in the slave trade. He said that we should all express deep sorrow and “rejoice at the better times we live in today.” We now know this is not true. We now know that slavery is still alive in the modern world, our world. Last week, in the first case of its kind since slavery was abolished two hundred years ago, a husband and wife were sent to jail for their part in a slavery racket run by Irish gypsies.
In sentencing James and Josie Connors, Judge Michael Kay described them as ‘pure evil.’ The couple had been in the practice of picking up homeless men at soup kitchens or job centres on the promise of accommodation and paid work. In reality the accommodation was wretched and the pay non-existent.
For these people, men with no family or contacts, life turned into a round of “beatings, starvation and work.” On the rare occasions when they were allowed to wash they were taken to a shower at a local leisure centre, their heads kept down as if in a chain gang. They had been brutalised to the point where most had lost the capacity for independent action.
In defending themselves the Connors said that they were the victims of racism, targeted by the police. In rejecting this claim the judge said that “It’s not about racism or the way of life of Irish travellers. It is about the capacity to be inhumane to fellow human beings.”
During the trial, which lasted some twelve weeks, the victims described how they had been forced to work under threat of violence and had slept in overcrowded, dilapidated trailers or a shed once used as a dog kennel. When the police raided the site last September the men were found to be emaciated and in desperately poor health.
The Connors, along with accomplices from the same gypsy community, were convicted under anti-slavery legislation. There is an interesting paradox here. Although slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in the early nineteenth century the status of slave never existed under English common law. Holding slaves was therefore never specifically illegal until the passing of the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009. “So it is that nearly 200 years after slavery was officially abolished,” the Judge said, “four defendants have stood trial over a period of three months and been convicted of holding their fellow human beings in servitude.”
Sadly cases like this are not unique. Slavery does exist in the modern world and Blair’s smug congratulatory note was wholly out of place. Over the past decade it has been estimated that cases of human trafficking in any given year have soared from just over a hundred to around 4000. A great many are foreign women lured here on the promise of paid work only to be ensnared in the sex industry. But now, as the Bedfordshire case demonstrates, native English people are entering the mix.
Slavery is back; slavery, sad to say, has never gone away.