In this week’s prayer email:

  • Short Notes: Syria, Nepal
  • Reflection on Freedom
  • Our Impact on Others’ Liberty – Modern Slavery

Lent has begun, and the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary texts for this Sunday focuses on the narrative of the Temptation of Christ. The Old Testament reading may be less familiar. It is, however, appropriate for Freedom Sunday, as it is a reminder of the Exodus, God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Our two Lenten reflections for this week focus on freedom and liberty: what are some of freedom’s resonances for Christians? And how do our actions affect – for good or ill – those whose freedom is curtailed by slavery? 
Short Notes: Syria, Nepal

  • The International Syria Support Group announced on Friday that it had agreed a cessation of hostilities and access for humanitarian aid in Syria to occur within a week. The announcement has received a cautious welcome, with relief at the prospect of access for relief and an end to the increased violence of the past weeks tempered by an awareness that the ISSG is composed of external powers, concerns about how reliable the promises of different parties are, and uncertainty whether the agreement will enshrine zones of influence for the foreign parties engaged in the conflict and what the impact of that might be. (Chatham House, FT, Foreign Policy, Guardian) Please pray that the agreement will be a means towards creating a lasting peace with justice, and that the humanitarian operations scheduled to begin immediately will bring effective relief quickly to those who have suffered so much.
  • We recently received welcome news that the blockade on the India/Nepal border, which has created such difficulties for Nepal and about which we asked you to pray earlier this year, has been ended. (Times of India, Himalayan Times) Please give thanks for this and pray that the ending of the blockade and the long-delayed establishment of Nepal’s National Reconstruction Authority will enable rebuilding after the earthquake to begin in earnest.

Reflection on Freedom

This first week of Lent,  we consider ways in which we can pray and act to protect and promote the liberty of others who are affected by modern slavery. As we do so, it is perhaps helpful to reflect on Christian understandings of freedom. What does the term evoke? Perhaps we think of freedom primarily as release from oppression, from burdens, from the things that bind us or hold us back. And indeed our God is the one who liberates Israel, escorting the people out of slavery in Eygpt. And our Christian faith is founded on forgiveness of (and freedom from) our sins through the death of Jesus. Throughout the Bible we are reminded that freedom comes as a gift of God.

But in the Bible we see that God’s acts of liberation are not the end of the story, but only the beginning. Christ’s death not only frees us from sin, it also opens the door to a life lived in freedom. In Galatians 5:1 Paul writes that ‘it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ Christian freedom is not only liberation from the things that bind us, it is also freedom to live life to the full. We are free to be all that God created us to be, to live with and for God and each other.

We see this kind of freedom embodied in Godself. The theologian Karl Barth writes that God’s freedom does not consist of ‘unlimited possibilities…or…naked sovereignty’, it is not expressed in ‘aloof isolation’ but in Trinity. In the same way, human freedom is not founded in self-assertion or individualism but in the freedom to be ‘for others’.

Part of that being for others involves sharing the gift we have been given: those who have received God’s gift of freedom are also called to participate in God’s acts of liberation, by refusing to participate in the oppression of others. Isaiah 10, for example, reminds us of the judgement of God on those who ‘issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.’  In this sense Christian freedom both releases us (from sin) and binds us (to God and each other). It is a gift to be lived out in community.

As we pray and act for the freedom of those who labour to make the goods we consume,  let us remember that our freedom is the gift of God, which both releases us from sin and frees us to be in relationship with God and to live ‘for others’. Let us pray that those who are oppressed, whose liberties are so curtailed, will know this kind of freedom.

Our Impact on Others’ Liberty – Modern Slavery

How is people’s liberty compromised today by modern slavery?

Anti Slavery International write, “Slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century. The practice still continues today in one form or another in every country in the world. From women forced into prostitution, children and adults forced to work in agriculture, domestic work, or factories and sweatshops producing goods for global supply chains, entire families forced to work for nothing to pay off generational debts; or girls forced to marry older men, the illegal practice still blights contemporary world”. Ownership, the buying and selling of people, dehumanizing treatment, physical constraint and work enforced through threat are some of the defining characteristics of modern day slavery.

One type of modern slavery is forced labour. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), almost 21 million people around the world are victims of forced labour – 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys. Forced labour by the state (in prison, by the military or rebel forces) accounts for 10% of these; the majority (90%) of victims – 18.7 million people – are exploited by individuals or enterprises in the private economy. Of these, 4.5 million people are sexually exploited, the rest are victims of forced labour in economic areas such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing. Just over half (56%) of forced labourers are exploited in their place of origin or residence; just under half (44%) are moved internally or internationally. Most are adults, but 26% are children. Geographically, over half of forced labourers are in the Asia-Pacific region, but 7% (1.5 million people) are in the Developed Economies and European Union.

Thus, although illegal, slavery continues today as a major global scourge. Indeed, such is its prevalence that modern slavery, including human trafficking, was identified as a key issue affecting local communities in every one of the regional consultations carried out by the Anglican Alliance.
What does modern day slavery have to do with us?

Whilst most types of modern slavery hapen a very long way away, research indicates we might be more connected to some of it than we would imagine or want – in particular through the supply chains of the products we buy.

For example, investigative journalism by the Guardian exposed slave labour in the supply chain of seafood sold by major British supermarkets. Coffee, tea, chocolate and palm oil are among other food products implicated in forced and child labour. The clothing sector has long been associated with sweatshops, but research by the Ethical Trading Initiative in 2015 found that an alarming 71% of UK companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery occurring at some stage in their supply chains. Forced labour has also been exposed in the electronics sector (including smart phones). The US Government list 353 products from 75 countries which they believe were produced using forced or child labour in violation of international standards. Closer to home, trafficking and forced labour is known about in nail bars and amongst seasonal migrant workers in the UK.
What is being done to address the problem?

Thankfully, given the prevalence and scale of modern day slavery, several organizations exist which are working to tackle the issue. These include:

  • Anti Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organization whose roots stretch back to the original abolitionist society. Today they are “committed to eradicating all forms of slavery throughout the world including forced labour, bonded labour, trafficking of human beings, descent-based slavery, forced marriage and the worst forms of child labour” and they both help people leave, recover and protect themselves from slavery and campaign and advocate for change.
  • Stop The Traffik is a global movement of activists which gathers and shares knowledge about human trafficking, equips people to take action to prevent it happening in their communities and campaigns for change in supply chains by engaging both consumers and businesses.
  •  International Justice Mission is a Christian organization that directly rescues victims of slavery, brings traffickers and slave owners to justice, helps restore survivors and works to strengthen justice systems.

In October 2015 the Modern Slavery Act came into force, designed to fight modern slavery in the UK. Thanks to the endeavours of campaigning organizations, this included Transparency in Supply Chain Provisions, which require all UK businesses with a global turnover in excess of £36million to publish an annual Modern Slavery Statement disclosing what they are doing to address and prevent modern slavery in their business and any supply chains. Businesses are not legally required to conduct due diligence on supply chains, but their statement must state if they are taking no such steps. “It is important for UK companies to note that an offence under this act occurs if a person knows, or ought to know, that they are holding a victim in circumstances that constitute slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour, no matter where this occurs globally”.

This last quote is from ‘Forced Labour, Human Trafficking & The FTSE 100″ which was released jointly by USPG, the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility (ECCR), Stop the Traffik and Rathbone Greenbank Investments to coincide with the Modern Slavery Act coming into force in October 2015. The report examines the nature of forced labour and human trafficking risks for FTSE 100 companies and their investors in selected sectors, makes recommendations for risk mitigation and highlights examples of both good and poor practice.

In the preface, Steve Chalke in his role of UN.GIFT Special Adviser on Community Action Against Human Trafficking describes the report as “an extraordinary resource for everyone who cares about good business, ethics and human rights.” Among the report’s findings were: that companies varied greatly in reporting their exposure to risk of forced labour and human trafficking in their supply chains; a small number “showed close attention to human rights issues in their supply chains as part of their overall business practices”; however, others made no mention of either risk, nor had any measures in place that would deal with it. Within the textiles sector, “no information was provided on how inclusion of forced labour prohibition within codes of conduct is being implemented”; and “for companies sourcing seafood there was minimal disclosure of the risks and there was a comprehensive lack of company information on the issues”.

How can we pray?

Formal prayer resources are available from Freedom Sunday, the Anglican Alliance and CCOW.

Prayer points for a service might include prayer:

  • in thanksgiving for the gift of forgiveness and freedom through Christ’s saving work
  • in thanksgiving for all those who work to share that gift of freedom with others, and especially for the work of people and organisations confronting the evils of modern slavery
  • that all who have been trafficked or are imprisoned in conditions of forced labour may be released from their slavery and may find healing and true freedom
  • that we may make choices which liberate rather than participating in structures that perpetuate slavery and exploitation

What else can we do?

The principal way our lives are likely to connect with modern day slavery is through the supply chains of products we buy. Taking care in our shopping is consequently a central way we can act justly. Options for positive choices abound. There are numerous outlets for ethically-sourced goods (the British Association of Fair Trade Shops and Suppliers (BAFTS) and Traidcraft are good starting points). Buying Fairtrade certified products ensures we are not unwittingly benefitting from exploitation. There are even companies which actively support victims of trafficking (links can be found on the Stop The Traffik website and include Global Seesaw and Heaven’s Attic). But how can we find out about products that don’t fall into these categories?

The Ethical Consumer Guide is a mine of valuable information, which provides detailed ethical ratings for over 40,000 companies, brands and products (including food, clothing, travel, appliances and energy). The Free2Work website provides information on forced and child labour in the apparel, electronic and coffee industries and End Slavery Now have a “Slave Free Shopping Guide” you can download via their website.

For some, investments provide another way of taking action. “It is easy to forget that we are all ‘investors’ in systems and businesses which can, through complex and distant supply chains, be connected to trafficking”, writes Rachel Parry of USPG in ‘Forced Labour, Human Trafficking & The FTSE 100″. The ECCR add, “New guidance within the report gives faith investors the knowledge to challenge companies and ensure they are working to the highest standards in this area and, in so doing, help protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people”. The Modern Slavery Act provides a

Supporting organisations that are tackling modern day slavery and trafficking, both financially and by engaging in campaign actions, is a further option for action. Some of the areas anti-slavery organisations are currently focusing on include: actions organisations are currently asking for support with include: the fashion industry, chocolate, tea, Uzbek cotton and calling on the British government to ratify the ILO Domestic Work Convention.

Engaging our churches with the issue through prayer and action are vital. Freedom Sunday (Against Modern Slavery) can be marked at various points of the year (14 February, 25 March, 30 July, 23/24 August, 18 October) and provide useful occasions for church engagement. Prayer resources are available as noted above.