Reparations from Historical Slavery Could Be Used to End Modern Slavery

One of the most emotional and difficult topics in contemporary discourse is the history of slavery and its lingering legacy. A common proposal for addressing slavery is reparations, compensatory payments to the descendants of Africans who had been enslaved as part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The arguments for reparations are regularly met with two difficulties – firstly, upon whom does the responsibility of payment fall and, secondly, how can we identify the descendants of slaves with absolute certainty? I briefly examine each of these difficulties before proposing that some form of reparations can (and should) be paid but, due to the second difficulty, these reparations should be earmarked for ending modern slavery.

Who should pay?

Some proponents of reparations call for reparations to be paid directly by the government. The difficulty with this is that many taxpayers who are not the descendants of slave-owners and slave-traders would have to pay for the crimes against humanity which they and their own ancestors did not commit. On the one hand, some argue that this would still be valid if one takes the position that all white people benefit from the legacy of institutional racism that stems from slavery but this form of retributive and redistributive justice is crude and poorly-targeted (especially because many white people had no part to play in this and sought to abolish slavery). Nevertheless, justice is necessary in some form or another.

The only just means by which reparations can be paid is through uniform financial extraction from wealthy people descended from slave-owners and slave traders – indeed, there is ample documentation in the United Kingdom regarding the identity of slave-owners and the massive sums of compensation they were paid when slavery was abolished. Similar records also exist in the United States.  After all, if the British Government of the day had the money to ‘compensate’ slave-owners when slavery was abolished (with the modern equivalent of billions of pounds), our current Government certainly has the resources to recuperate this compensation and enforce added, punitive measures.

The Difficulty of Identifying Descendants of Slaves and the Extent of Compensation Due

The standard argument for reparations to be paid to the descendants of slaves is an understandable one which I thoroughly sympathise with. However, crucial issues are that it may be difficult to accurately and reliably identify the direct descendants of slaves and to determine the extent of the damages to be paid. Although slavery is absolutely and completely inexcusable, it can be argued that some slaves were treated even more brutally than others and, thus, the extent of compensation should be higher – tragically, however, this would be very difficult to prove in court and it is likely that the defendants, being wealthy slave-owner and slave-trader descendants, would have more resources with which to counter the prosecution.

The Facts about Modern Slavery

Anti-Slavery International states that (with estimates taken from the International Labour Organization):

  • 20.9 million people are in modern slavery across the world.
  • 5.5 million children are in slavery across the world.
  • 11.7 million people are in slavery in the Asia-Pacific region, mostly in bonded labour.
  • 3.7 million people are in slavery in Africa.
  • 1.6 million people are in slavery in Latin America.
  • 1.5 million people are in slavery in developed economies.
  • 14.2 million slavery victims are exploited in economic activities.
  • 4.5 million people forced into sexual exploitation.
  • 98% of people trafficked for sexual exploitation are women and girls.
  • 2.2 million people in slavery are exploited by governments.
  • US $150 billion – illegal profits that forced labour generates in the private economy per year.

How could the reparations be used?

Anti-Slavery International outlines the challenges to tackle modern slavery in the UK as being primarily threefold:

  • Policing. Awareness of modern slavery amongst the police has risen considerably over the last few years. However,  cases still exist where people can be turned away from the police station and not believed, and those forced into crime treated as criminals. The police also should have more resources for complex anti-slavery investigations.
  • Identification. The referral system often looks at victims through the context of their immigration status. This means people from outside of the European Union are up to four times less likely to be recognised as victims of trafficking and are often ordered to be deported rather than protected. Visa rules also prevent overseas domestic workers from leaving abusive employers and seeking out new ones. This often leads them to suffer abuse in silence.
  • Protection. Protection and support for victims of trafficking is patchy, especially in the current climate of government cuts and cost-efficiency savings. There is no system to provide long-term support for all victims and many have to move out of a safe house before they have fully recovered from abuse and put their lives back on track. Protection of children is also of great concern. Although a Child Guardianship scheme has been included in the Modern Slavery Act, the full implementation of it is scheduled for as late as mid-2019.

The common problem is, therefore, scarcity of resources. Extracting reparations from the wealthy descendants of slave-owners and slave traders could address this deficit. Furthermore, given that slavery is an international problem, if the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Canada, China, India, Brazil, and many more countries earmarked reparations accordingly (with respect to and in proportion to their respective histories of slavery from the wealthy descendants of slave-owners and slave-traders) for the purposes of combating modern slavery, international organisations can be set up and pre-existing ones that function well can be strengthened to effectively coordinate global efforts against modern slavery. When employing and training the many new personnel that would be needed to effectively manage the efforts against modern slavery, preference would be given to the descendants of slaves and those who suffer from legacy of slavery.

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