WORKING HARD FOR LEEDS CENTRAL
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Speech to the TUC Slavery Conference: Am I Not a Man and a Brother?
March 24th, 2007
Thank you for inviting me here today as we commemorate the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act – ending the slave trade in the British Empire.
That was a historic achievement.
The slave trade was one of humanity’s most profound failures.
Ending slavery was an extraordinary social movement.
12 men met on 22nd May 1787 and began the most ambitious and successful campaign of all time. Wilberforce himself was a wealthy man who became a Christian and part of a great campaign.
Whole cities like Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow prospered on slave sugar and cotton. Despite this, within 50 years of deciding to “lay the axe at the root of [slavery]”, these early campaigners had abolished the transatlantic slave trade.
Alex de Tocqueville wrote that “if you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt you will find anything more extraordinary.”
I am proud to be part of a Labour movement that follows in the footsteps of these pioneers.
This was the first true human rights campaign. Just as this government was the first to implement a human rights act.
This was the movement that created most of the political campaign techniques we are familiar with today. It practically invented the mass produced campaign poster; the first leaflets and newsletters; the first direct mail and the first political logo and slogan.
Because the early pioneers of the abolitionist movement looked at the world and saw how it had to change; they believed they could change it; and through politics they did change it.
Working people without the vote, without the right to an education, themselves living in abject poverty showed empathy and concern for their fellow human beings living in servitude.
Sheffield metal workers, whose livelihood depended upon exports to the slave economies of the Caribbean, signed en-mass a petition which proclaimed that they “considered the cause of the nations of Africa as their own”.
Abolition committees formed in every major city of the UK and set about collecting petitions. 13,000 signed in Glasgow; 20,000 in Manchester – a third of the population. In just a few weeks, there were 390,000 more signatures on the petitions than there were people with the right to vote in Britain. In an age when women were seen and not heard women’s activists groups were established across the country. The group in Birmingham canvassed four out of five homes in that city.
Josiah Wedgwood, was part of this movement.
In 1787 he helped Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp to form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
They saw that ending the Slave Trade was simply a matter of political will. That together, collectively, they could change things.
He owned a pottery works and produced a pottery cameo, which showed a black slave in chains, kneeling, his hands lifted up to heaven.
The motto underneath read: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
And I’m also pleased to say that these pioneers also led the way on gender equality too. This slogan was accompanied by another: “Am I not a woman and a sister”.
Hundreds of these cameos were donated to the Society for distribution. They took off and became the symbol of the Abolitionist movement, not only in Britain but in the United States. Thomas Clarkson wrote that “ladies wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.”
198 years later, to show support for Make Poverty History, more than 8 million people in Britain wore a white band around their wrist.
Because they also knew that without politics, nothing will change. And that with politics, with political will, with people campaigning together, we can change the world.
And thanks to their efforts, we were able to make the historic commitments we did at Gleneagles in 2005.
Thanks to Labour politics, we are now changing the world:
But today, in 2007, we need to take a good hard look at the world we are living in.
The coalition of MPs led by William Wilberforce, and the thousands of ordinary people whose protests help secure the passing of the Act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade 200 years ago, would be profoundly disappointed by our lack of progress since.
Then as now, greed and disregard for the rights and dignity of fellow human beings drove this inhuman trade. Then, as now, the only way to defeat this is for good people to come together and fight for change. And the truth is that the abolition of slavery is unfinished business.
There are more than 12 million people – men, women and children – bound by slavery around the world today. A similar number to all those who were forced into slave ships in the entire history of the slave trade.
And of the 12 million people living in slavery today, more than 2 million have been trafficked – many women or girls for the sex trade.
And thousands of children live as child soldiers.
Boys like Francis Otwot.
When Francis was ten years old, he was abducted from his home in Northern Uganda. He was forced to march for weeks across the bush. He was beaten. He was forced to become a child soldier. And after months of brainwashing, his whole personality changed.
Here’s how he described his life: “Fighting was part of my work. If I stayed for two weeks without firing, I would feel something was missing, something is not very normal”.
Francis was ust ten years old.
This is not how the world should be. And just as the campaigners before us knew, it is not a question of capacity.
It is a question of collective political will.
We need to redouble the fight against slavery and injustice in the world today.
Because commemorating the abolition of the Slave Trade this year and expressing our deep regret for what happened will be hollow gestures if we do not renew efforts to end this traffic for good.
That’s why I wanted to be here today to discuss the challenge we face now.
In Britain we are taking action both to strengthen our efforts to defeat the criminals who run this despicable trade, and to help its victims.
I am delighted that the Prime Minister was able to announce last month that the UK will be signing the Council of Europe Convention on Human Trafficking.
In the next few months we will publish the UK Action Plan on Human Trafficking – taking account of the many contributions received during the public consultation last year.
But while trafficking and slavery are prohibited by international and national laws and conventions, we now know that to end trafficking and slavery we must also address the underlying reasons why so many people are vulnerable to exploitation.
And part of this is about poverty.
As long as one in five people live in extreme poverty, as long as 80 million children are not enrolled in primary school, and as long as too many countries have ineffective government - there will be a ready supply of victims for the greedy and unscrupulous.
To fight trafficking and slavery today needs a commitment to improve governance and security, health and education, and provide decent work for poor people.
And that’s exactly why the UK is working all over the world to beat bonded labour in Vietnam, in India and in Brazil; to beat human trafficking in Vietnam, in Thailand, in Laos, in China, in Cambodia and in Uganda; to eradicate descent slavery in Niger; to end forced domestic service in Indonesia and in Malaysia; and to demobilise child soldiers in Uganda – just to name a few of the projects we are currently funding.
That’s why we have set out a timetable – the first time any government has done this - to reach 0.7 per cent of GDP spent on aid by 2013. And it’s why my department works so hard in the fight against poverty in the world.
What we do as a government is important. But if we can learn anything from those who came before us, it is that fighting the injustice in the world is not something we can do alone.
And the role of unions here is incredibly important.
A few months ago I met some ship breakers from India. They were hired and paid by the day to do hard dangerous work. Many of the ships they work on are full of asbestos.
I asked them about health and safety. And they told me that the safety equipment they had been given by their employers – amounted to a pair of rubber washing up gloves. One worker said he had bought himself some glasses to protect his eyes. Not much use against breathing asbestos in.
These workers need unions. Unions can help them organise, and get the safety and the rights they deserve.
One reason I met them was to talk about how we could help them do this. Because we know that unions make an enormous difference in the developing world.
In India, the National Alliance of Street Vendors has successfully defended the rights of its members at national, state and local levels.
And in Ahmedabad, union representation has resulted in the municipality setting aside 10 million rupees to improve street vendors’ lives, by building small markets, issuing licenses and demarcating specific sales areas.
In Nigeria, the national Labour Congress, working with DFID and TUCAid is building the capacity of trade unions to reflect the concerns of women workers, improving working conditions for women through more equal pay, non-discrimination and better maternity provision.
But it’s not just about building unions in developing countries. It’s about making connections.
In the world we are now facing, a world where corporations are multinational, where migrants move across the world, where trade between countries is in billions of dollars a day, where what happens in one country impacts more quickly and more profoundly on other countries than ever before, unions need to be international.
I think this comes pretty naturally to union people. We’ve been making more connections throughout our history.
The first trade unions started in small villages, protecting workers from exploitation and using solidarity to improve everyone’s lives.
And as transport became easier, as more unscrupulous employers had the chance to recruit workers from other towns and villages, unions had to get bigger and broader. They had to be regional.
And as companies became national, so too unions had to become national.
I know there are delegates here from Brooklyn in New York and from Freetown Sierra Leone. And I’d like to you welcome you. Because we share the same values and the same ideas.
In a way, our mottos – no matter where we come from in the world - have always been: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” and “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister”.
So I’m really pleased that the new International TUC was launched in November. I think this will make a real difference.
DFID recently signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the TUC, worth more than £750,000 over four years, to help unions in Britain raise awareness about development, build links with Southern unions and help in our development work overseas. And it’s why we hold a DFID / TUC forum every three months to ensure that we’re working closely together.
This has been such a success that we are about to launch the new Governance and Transparency Fund. A £100 million initiative that will help build the capacity of civil society - including unions - in developing countries, to hold their governments to account.
But I think we have to be honest about this too: helping unions in the developing world is not only the right thing to do, it is also the practical thing to do.
Because protecting workers rights here depends in the end on ensuring better rights for workers in the developing world.
As I see it, in this new century, there is one big political question facing all countries.
And that is whether to try and shut ourselves off against the world or to open up to the opportunities that this new world can bring.
Let’s be honest about it: sometimes how fast things are changing can make us all feel worried. Globalisation, for all its benefits, does bring greater insecurity.
From poverty to climate change, from conflict in Darfur to floods in Bangladesh, what happens in the rest of the world will define what happens to us.
So how do we respond? I say we should be open. Because the world we now live in is defined by the connections between us and the rest of humanity.
I spent more than 22 years of my working life in union movement.
And I know that change is what the Labour movement – the Labour party and unions alike are made for. Because at our best, we help people make the most of change.
If nothing ever altered, if there were no job losses, if people didn’t need to upgrade their skills to a modern economy, if our standards of health and safety weren’t always improving, if other countries couldn’t start to compete with our industries, then trade union and Labour politics would be less relevant.
But in the changing world we live in today, Labour and trade unions have an unprecedented opportunity to change the world as we have done throughout our history.
So let’s remember the vision of our forebears.
Remember that our movement, now more than a century old, also grew out of a time of great social and economic change. The harnessing of fire and water. A technology that transformed our planet. The move from the countryside to the towns in search of work in the mills and factories. The world turned upside down.
Our forebears could not stop that change, but they did resolve to shape it.
Out of the slums was born the reform movement for better housing and clean water. Out of the factories came trade unions. Out of a world where very few went to school emerged the idealists who believed that one day every child would go to school.
Each one of them inspired by a burning desire to build a better world.
Each one understanding that without political representation things would never change.
And as we look back from this vantage point in history at what a century of Labour representation has achieved, so we must now look forward to the task ahead in this new century.
The world’s poor should not have to wait another hundred years for their hopes to be fulfilled. There should be clean water, clinics, doctors, medicines, classrooms, teachers, the opportunity to earn a living, the chance to trade fairly, dignity in old age, and security in every community in every country in every part of our world.
Because these are the birthright of every single one of us and the expression of our common humanity.
And I think we can draw strength from what we have learned.
We have learned that Labour politics does change things.
We have shown that we are each other’s brother and sister.
We have learned that together, we can change the world as it is into the world we would wish it to be – a world which we can pass on to those who will come after us.