A reflection on these stories – Revd Fleur Houston
These stories illustrate how three people, a man and two women, from three different countries, were deprived of their freedom through the experience of being trafficked.
All three were poor, all three expected to find higher-paid employment elsewhere, all three were deceived and trapped in a cycle of abuse.
Pawel’s experience is typical of those who suffer forced labour. He experienced an incremental deprivation of freedom. When he arrived in UK from Poland, he was told that his promised job in Nottingham had fallen through; but because he had to pay his traffickers for his flight, he had to accept such work as could be found elsewhere. He was forced to share a house with other people from Poland and not allowed to leave the premises. He was made to register with an agency and when he found employment in a cake factory, his wages were taken from him. He was forced to pay not only for his flight, but also for his accommodation and food. He was trapped. When he protested, he was threatened with violence. Sleep-deprived, he was forced by his traffickers to engage in petty crime. The threats of violence increased to such a degree that he lost any remaining initiative through fear. His deprivation of freedom was total.
“Guest” from India endured domestic servitude. In order to support her children, she found employment with a private household in Qatar, doing housework and minding the children. When she protested to her employers that she was receiving little if any pay, she was prevented from leaving and threatened with her life. Her isolation was total, and she attempted suicide. When this desperate attempt to exercise freedom of choice did not work, she accompanied the family to London where she suffered the final degradation of being raped by her employer.
“Guest” from Italy suffered sexual exploitation. She too wished to send money home and was tempted by the prospect of work in a restaurant. But when she arrived in England, she was deprived of her liberty, held in a room with another girl and forced to engage daily in abusive, non-consensual sexual activity. This went on for several months. She had no freedom of choice.
Forced labour exists because the persistence of poverty leaves people vulnerable to exploitation. It is not a recent phenomenon – it is graphically described in the Bible. In Job 24: 2-12, we see the desperate plight of the landless poor who are exploited by “the wicked”. What little resources they have are seized, they are forced to scavenge food for their young. Their babies may be taken as bonds. Without adequate clothing, food or shelter, they are forced to do hard labour. In Jeremiah 22:13, the king who uses forced labour for his building projects is castigated for his unrighteousness and his injustice in forcing his neighbours to work without wages.
In Leviticus 25: 39-43, well-to-do Israelites are instructed as to how best to behave towards those neighbours who are forced by poverty into debt bondage. In the Jubilee year, which falls every fifty years, the rural labourers and their children are free to return home. In the meantime, their employers are not to “rule over them with harshness”. The text presupposes equality; they are all brothers, members of the community. This is shared freedom. This fine ideal, however, excludes those who are seen to be outside the community: Leviticus 25: 44-46 specifies that foreigners may be bought as chattel slaves without hope of ever gaining their freedom. The fact that foreigners were being treated badly is implied by the strong directive at Leviticus 19: 34. They are not to be oppressed, they are to be treated as citizens, they are to be loved.
How does the early church deal with this? Paul urges Philemon to take back his runaway slave Onesimus, as a “beloved brother”. He will still be a slave, but he is to be treated as an equal in Christ. People are not criticised in the Bible for having slaves – it is part of life in ancient times. But the relationship between master and slave is of prime importance; they are brothers and sisters in Christ (Galatians 3:28). If this teaching is taken seriously, people should be treated as equals and that means not abusing them or profiting from their suffering. If this applies to Christians, it must apply to everyone in today’s world.
Jesus spells out the difference between worldly rule and the behaviour of his followers (Mark 10:42-44) – a powerful rejection of domination and the oppression that goes with it. And the only reason the disciples are able to go down this path is because their master himself has gone there first: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).
Questions for discussion
- “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1) How do you use this freedom? What restricts you and what sets you free in your own experience?
- Poverty is the context for trafficking. Given the disparity in resources between most people in the developed world and the majority in less developed nations, what can we do to achieve change?
- How do our shopping habits, our sexual behaviour and our cultural norms reinforce slavery?
- The two women featured both escaped through the intervention of members of the public. What signs should we look for that a person may be a victim of trafficking?
You execute justice for the oppressed
and set the prisoners free.
We pray for our brothers and sisters who are trafficked as commodities,
Exploited and unloved.
Comfort those who are held in slavery, that they may be restored to freedom;
Be with their families in times of anxiety that they may find hope.
Help us to live in such a way
That others are not made to pay the price of our excess.
Break the chains of slavery,
And hasten the day when all people shall be free,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.