As millions of Jews worldwide sit down for the Passover meal tonight to remember when, 3,500 years ago, the Jewish people were freed from slavery, we must remember those suffering today.
Even after 3,500 years, the story of the Exodus is as relevant today as it was then. A story of a struggle and hardship that is all too often overlooked in modern society – slavery.
Passover is probably my favourite Jewish festival: there’s good food and the promise of musical accompaniment at the end of the night from my 12-year-old cousin, Sacha.
This Passover will be very different to any other because of Coronavirus, but perhaps it can be different, too, for many families by placing a heavy emphasis on modern-day slavery.
My family has always stressed that slavery is not a thing of the past. This is helped by the fact that we don’t simply practice the traditions; we take part in them as well. During the Passover meal we eat matzah instead of bread because the Israelites didn’t have time to bake bread for their journey, we eat bitter herbs which represents the bitterness of slavery, and we eat charoset, a delicious mixture of fruits, nuts and sweet wine that is supposed to represent the mortar used by the Jews to lay bricks for Pharaoh’s monuments.
Despite these attempts to relate to the plight of the Israelites, it is impossible without understanding the forms that modern-day slavery takes. From fettered servitude to human trafficking.
It is thought that some 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today, it’s estimated that some 40.3 million people live in some form of modern-day slavery, according to the UN International Labour Organisation. But even this is a conservative estimate and important data is missing from parts of Africa and Asia where modern slavery is most prevalent.
And these statistics don’t take organ trafficking, child soldiers of forced marriages into account, all of which can be seen as another form that slavery takes.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected and make up over 71% of victims, the majority of whom are part of the sex trade. Last month, the Brtitish-Nigerian novelist Abi Daré published a book about Nigeria’s ‘house girls’ trapped, ‘beaten, raped and forced to work’. Daré’s book highlights the extent to which modern-day slavery goes hand in hand with gender and modern-day sexism. A fact that is all too often ignored by the governments where slavery is most widespread.
In 2018, over 174 countries made public commitments to put an end to slavery. Yet only 122 of them criminalised human trafficking in line with the UN’s programme. Slavery will persist so long as it is propped up by corruption and weak governments.
Martijn Boersma and Justine Nolan have written of the devastating impact that Coronavirus could have on slavery. They’ve warned: ‘the persistence of modern slavery derives in part from purchasing practices that put extreme pressure on suppliers.’ Adding that: ‘a global economic crisis might make them worse.’
But work is being done to help. From 2020, companies with profits of over $100 million will have to commission public reports into slavery in their operations under the Modern Slavery Act. The difficulty is making sure that this is enforced. Until then, slavery will be permitted to sink further and further underground.
At a time of global health and economic crises, it is more important than ever that we look out for the most vulnerable in society.
To celebrate Passover without a thought for modern-day slavery would be to ignore the principle that the Torah teaches. We must “remember that we were once slaves in Egypt”, but also remember those who are slaves today.