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Gary Younge
Working like slaves

The satirical US magazine the Onion has a great video spoof entitled Gap - For Kids by Kids. Ramming home the point that so much of the west's casualwear is produced under appalling conditions, it draws a link between the children who wear clothes and the people who produce them.

That line between extreme capitalist exploitation and slavery was the nub of the discussion on Slavery in Our Time at the Manchester International festival this weekend.

While the panel contributions ranged widely (including a searing account by Mende Nazer of her experiences of slavery both in Sudan and the UK), the focus was on the legacies of historical slavery and the examples of modern slavery that persist.

On the first, many remain in denial, arguing that we draw a line under that past, thereby removing ourselves from any historical responsibility for our crimes. Of the second there is irrefutable evidence, throughout the world, of people still being subjected to forced labour, often, as in Nazer's case, following kidnappings and abductions. According to campaign group Free the Slaves, there are more slaves now than ever before - although as a proportion of the world's population the number is far lower.

Unshackling the notion of slavery from its purely racial paradigm, Paul Gilroy sought to relocate the debate about slavery within the broader context of capitalism - the ultimate comodification of humankind.

Kevin Bales, the world's leading expert on anti-slavery and the head of Free the Slaves, explained that while slavery is still widespread we are none the less better positioned to eradicate it now than in the 19th century for two reasons.

First, unlike 200 years ago, you would be hard pushed to find anyone to stick up for slavery. Second, because no economy is now dependent on slavery in the way that some - not least the US - were in the 19th century.

On the first point, Bales is undoubtedly right. The debate about slavery is over and humanism won through. However, paradoxically, while we all seem to agree it's wrong the fact that it persists and pervades suggests that that knowledge doesn't translate into political commitment to eradicate it.

This reluctance may well be related to a question mark over Bales' second point. Given the appalling working conditions of so many in the world, the global inequalities, the capital chasing lower wages and weaker unions around the globe, arguably the international economy is dependent on labour that toils under conditions far closer to slavery than freedom. The term "slave labour" is generally employed as a slogan to describe the low-paid both locally and internationally. Maybe we should use it more carefully but not necessarily less often to describe the actual conditions of those who make the shirts on our backs. Maybe then we'd realise that our complicity in their suffering won't end until we begin to acknowledge that it exists.

Listen to the debate here.

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