Friday, 20 July 2012

Slavery, Unexplained Deaths and Unidentifiable Victims

This picture (Copyright Hertfordshire Constabulary via BBC News Website) is a forensic artist's reconstruction of a man whose body was found in Puttock Hill Woods, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, on the 27th of March 1994. He was wearing blue overalls and had no identification, or meaningful personal effects, on him. He had died of heart disease, so his death didn't seem to be suspicious, and he had presumably been working with contractors who were doing some management and brush-clearance work on the woods. However, none of the contractors appeared to know who he was. (They simply cheerfully accepted that a stranger was willing to work alongside them, for no pay, until he dropped dead?)

Exhaustive inquires and television appeals by Hertfordshire Constabulary failed to identify this man, although they did have some success identifying the deceased in some other cold-case unexplained deaths.

In the light of the recent slavery case in Leighton Buzzard, and another similar one in Hampshire, where homeless, mentally-ill and mentally-handicapped men were abducted, held prisoner (sometimes for years) and forced to perform often back-breaking manual labour as their captors acted as construction site "groundworking contractors" as well as offering tarmacking and paving services to householders, not only in Beds, Bucks and Herts, but also, it appears in Skane and possibly other parts of Sweden, it's quite likely that the contractors who police spoke to, knew a lot more than they admitted to. However, since the man seemed to have suffered from nothing more than hard work, there was no particular reason, at the time, for police to be suspicious.

There is, now, a lot of reason to be suspicious, because apart from offences involved with servitude, not reporting a death and not ensuring the proper health and safety of a worker, the work regime and diet that we now know these slaves were subjected to, for very periods of time, coupled with denial of the freedom to seek medical care and advice, would give a slave with a normally treatable heart condition almost no chance of long-term survival. A jury might find that to be manslaughter, culpable homicide or even murder (if the denial of freedom and forced labour was so reckless of the man's well-being that any reasonable person would have expected it to lead to his death.) It would certainly be grounds to review whether judges should have life sentences available to them in servitude cases!

Men rescued from the Greenacres traveller's site by Bedfordshire Police, related that they had been threatened with violence and death if they attempted to escape, and that they were taunted by being told that the body of at least one former slave was buried in a nearby field. In that context, it's pretty obvious that a sick man would be taken somewhere where no-one would ask him reasonable questions with very awkward answers, and that a dead man might be buried, or left propped against a tree with no means of identification.

And since the police appeals to potential relatives were all about "a man working in outdoor trades" and this may well not have been what the victim was doing the last time his family heard about him, it's not totally surprising that the police television appeals drew a blank.

And a further body:

The skeletal remains of a man were found in Cardington lock a few years ago, following flood conditions on the river Great Ouse that required the lock gates to be opened at both ends to supplement the normal flood gates and spillway, which almost certainly mean that the body didn't actually start off where it was eventually found, and had been in the river, somewhere further upstream for months or years. (Pictures taken around the time of discovery, of side-channel just upstream of Penstock Weir and at Cardington Lock itself.) This man has never been identified, either, but the location is a mile or so downstream from a regular, if illegal, traveller's pitch in a riverside meadow near the Oasis Swimming Pool. A dead traveller is laid to rest with great ceremony and a great deal of emotion, quite possibly any forced labour travelling with them is treated with a good deal less gentle love and respect when they expire. Preventing a decent burial is a serious criminal offence in England, regardless of to what extent the accused contributed to the death.

NB: all navigation locks on the river Great Ouse have a steel visor gate on the upstream side and canal-type swing-gates on the downstream side. The latter are normally swung closed by any great flow of water, but provision is made for chaining them open during extreme flow conditions, allowing the visor gate to be raised and very high volumes of water to be discharged via the navigation channel. It is quite evident from the author's pictures what the chances are, of a sunken body staying where it was sunk once Cardington Lock has been opened to discharge water rather than for navigation purposes.

The final picture, above, shows that even the torrent coming through Cardington Lock was just a  small fraction of the total in the river at the time, this is the junction between the spillway channel to the right and the (normally idle) canoe slalom course, to the left, which doubles as an emergency flood relief channel. There are two further big discharge gates at "Cardington Sluice" and Penstock weir feeds water into a purpose-built flood relief channel, the "New Cut". A linking channel connects the top of the New Cut at Penstock, with the main river and navigation channel close to the meadows beside the Oasis pool. There's the force there to move a dead body a mile or two, not so much "over time" as quite suddenly in extreme flow and not at all in more normal conditions.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Servitude and Leighton Buzzard

The Greenacres Slavery case has reached a verdict on some of the charges, although the jury couldn't agree a verdict for a couple of dozen other charges, some of which will be retried. This means that Medawar isn't totally free to comment on every aspect of the case.

This link and this one give a pretty fair impression of the basic news and journalistic reaction, so far.

However, there are two aspects arising from the charges that have been dealt with, upon which it is permissible and necessary to comment. Both, really, a product of the fact that when Parliament passed the current servitude legislation, it didn't really know the gravity and extent of the practices it was attempting to outlaw. This is nobody's fault; it's a product of shining a light into a very dark hidden corner, that something much worse than expected may crawl out.

One of those convicted was given an eleven year sentence, out of what Medawar believes is an absolute maximum of fourteen years. Until the facts of the Leighton Buzzard case were examined in court, eleven to fourteen years must have seemed adequate or even harsh, because the laws were really introduced to prevent the sort of abuse of foreign workers which immigration authorities and the gangmaster licensing authority, knew about prior to 2010. That included unlawful detention, poor housing, excessive work, no pay, coercion and inadequate provision of food and minimal care and concern for safety. But it was envisaged that these unacceptable things were happening over a period of weeks or months.

One of the slaves who was freed by Bedfordshire police from the Greenacres Traveller's site, had been held there for fifteen years: more than the maximum sentence available to judges for punishing those holding him there. He was held in conditions unquestionably worse than those in any English jail, and subject to threats of violence and abuse of a kind which would be extraordinary in any context, even inside jail. This does not mean that the practice of abducting and keeping homeless and mentally-ill men as slaves started fifteen years before the police raid: there's some evidence that it had been going on for something more like thirty years. This takes us back pretty well exactly to the period when the Thatcher government repealed previous anti-slavery legislation, mainly in surrender to European pressure to get rid of any remaining English and Scottish laws still carrying the death penalty. As far as one can tell, and it's not a subject on which those directly responsible are ever likely to enlighten us, the practice of some Irish Traveller clans using homeless men as forced labour started immediately it ceased to be a potentially capital offence to do so.

In the light of severity and sheer duration of the cruelty inflicted via Greenacres, there needs to be an urgent modification to the sentences available to judges in forced servitude cases. Not necessarily to increase the amount of time actually served in jail, but in order to alter the legal basis on which they are released, having served it. And it does seem possible that if this is how bad it looks on what is only the third or fourth occasion a servitude case has come to court under the new laws, that we're going to see even worse, perhaps quite soon. Judges are going to have trouble responding properly to the very worst cases.

The solution is to make life sentences available. The crucial difference between a life sentence with an eleven year tariff, and an eleven year sentence, is that release from prison from a life sentence, is only ever done on licence. The licence can be revoked at any time and the offender recalled to prison if there appears to be any likelihood of a further offence. And release from a life sentence does not happen in the first place, if the offender appears to be unrepentant.

The second problem with the servitude laws as they stand is this:
More particularly in connection with another case, involving offenders with the same family name as those from Leighton Buzzard and tried in Luton, but officially unconnected and tried in Hampshire, evidence and testimony emerged of individuals abducted from the streets and dole queues and used as forced labour, were traded and sold between different individuals and between different branches of the same family living and working from different sites.

Men were trafficked and sold within England. There is also a body of authoritative and officially-published evidence that men seized for the purposes of forced labour in England, have been taken to and from the Skane region of Sweden.

The servitude laws do not really address the sale and trafficking of forced labourers, and this kind of trade is only vigorously pursued by the police and customs if it involves sexual offences and/or children.

This needs to change: trading in slaves was outlawed by Parliament a whole generation before keeping slaves was outlawed. Largely because it was in the trade and transport of slaves that the worst cruelty and abuse was perceived, by Georgian society, to be happening.

There need to be specific offences of trading in forced labour and profiting from servitude, because it's possible that those profiting most from the practice of forced labour, may be far removed from the day-to-day administration of it. As things stand, someone who puts up the capital or resources in kind for someone to set up in the forced labour trade, is going to be exceptionally difficult to prosecute, even though the offence simply would not be happening without their, distant, involvement.

It must be made more straightforward to prosecute those who provide the capital, sites vehicles and equipment for acts of servitude. It must also be possible, where appropriate, to prosecute those who award contracts to gangmasters or "subcontractors" using forced labour. And that prosecution must be a significant charge with a severe penalty, and not something that can be viewed as an administrative risk or expense.

The final issue is this: 
All the media reports and political debate uses terms like "virtual slavery" and "slavery-like conditions" to describe something which meets any reasonable, let alone dictionary, definition of slavery. It is fairly obvious that the sole reason for doing this, is that white journalists are afraid that the black community will take them to task for implying that there's any connection between what happened to white people at Greenacres and what happened to Afro-Caribbean communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

There is a connection: it is the same thing. We need to use the same word, or we devalue the language, we mitigate the guilt of the modern slaver, and we betray all those who suffered in previous centuries, including those Cornishmen kidnapped as slaves by Barbary pirates and those from so many countries and cultures who was taken as slaves to Rome, by letting it happen again.

Taking men by a mixture of trickery and force, keeping them by pure force and threats of death, making them work the same way and maintaining this oppression and exploitation, year in, year out, is slavery pure and simple and to pretend otherwise, or demand some other weaseling form of words, is both dishonest and complicit.

Anyone who will not call a slave a slave, is ultimately making life easier for the slave-master.