The blank screen fades and the sound starts. I sit back in the cinema and finish off the remaining popcorn after gorging most of it through the adverts. The cinema fills with the sounds and images of slaves working on a sugar cane plantation and when Solomon Northup is introduced. We hear of his horrific story of being taken from being a free man- educated and successful- to being entrapped as a slave for 12 years. The film recounts how the violinist was convinced to leave his home and family in Saratoga to perform for a ludicrous sum of money only to be tricked, drugged and kidnapped. He is left with no papers to prove his freedom. Alone and helpless. Trapped in slavery. Beatings, mistreatment and violence play out over the screens- the exploitation of a man and theft of his freedom. Eventually Solomon is freed, welcomed back home with tears. I can’t help but choke up a little myself too as Solomon sees his grandson for the first time- once again a free man. Credits appear on the screen and we file out. Harrowing as it is, we also give ourselves a little pat on the back that; at least our generation is better. We learnt our lesson, right?
But it all seems to be a little too close to home. Let me tell you the story of Gabby.
Gabby is from Nigeria, she grew up on the outskirts of Abuja with her 3 younger brothers and her younger sister. Her mother struggled to get by. Gabby was offered the chance of a new life in the UK, one with the promise of work and education. A life in which she could send money back to Nigeria to support her family.
However, on arriving in the UK she finds that the reality is entirely different. Instead, she is forced into prostitution. She is left with no papers to prove her freedom.
Alone and helpless; trapped. Beatings, mistreatment, and violence are the norm.
But this time it isn’t an Oscar-bait blockbuster. It’s not on the other side of the world. This is happening on the same street as the cinema. It is not a man 150 years ago but rather a 17-year-old girl today.
This is the story of millions of people alive today; 27 million in fact. Some are transported around the world. Some are forced to work long hours under horrific conditions to repay a debt. Some are born into it. Some are sold into it. Some are tricked into it. But all of them have one thing in common:
They have all been stripped of their freedom.
One of the key differences between slavery now and before is the price of slaves. Whilst in the time of Solomon Northup (1850s) an average field labourer would be sold for the equivalent to £15,000 to £30,000 today. However, that same field labourer now costs less than £70.
The average cost of a slave in the world today is just under £70.
The drop in the price of slaves has led to a change in the slavery industry. Slaves can be purchased cheaply but generate high profits. It would have taken about 20 years for an American slave such as Solomon Northup to repay their purchase price and maintenance costs. Today it takes just over 2 years for a bonded labourer in South Asia to do the same. Today’s slave is seen as cheap and disposable with the slaveholder having little incentive to provide health care or protection for slaves. This has led to slavery shifting to become short term.
Put bluntly it is not profitable to keep slaves beyond their short-term usefulness.
This is usually the part of the film when a brave, selfless hero emerges; recognises the deprivation and decides enough is enough. But this isn’t a film, the world doesn’t need Hollywood hero, it needs everyday heroes like you.
Maybe we can make the world change through the everyday acts of people who decide that this injustice has gone too far. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, it can instead be the actions of the everyday which will ultimately make history; changing where you shop, getting involved with charities, letting businesses know that it’s not OK.
Let’s do something now so that the next generation are not left asking if slavery has even changed in the last 150 years.
By Boo Hinton