The road to true freedom


Wednesday, August 01, 2018

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In a recent report carried by this newspaper, the Global Slavery Index (GSI), which tracks conditions of slavery around the world, estimates that close to 7,000 Jamaicans are living in modern-day slavery. It further estimates that globally 40.3 million people live in this condition. Jamaica is ranked 112 out of 167 countries for its level of slavery.

The GSI defines slavery as situations of exploitation in which people are used and abused and forced to remain in their condition by threats, violence, coercion, and other forms of the abuse of power. Forced labour and human trafficking, including sex trafficking, seem to be very high on the index of human exploitation. There is serious cause for concern that the trafficking of human beings for sex is very high on any list of the exploitation of the human being for desultory gain. It is particularly offensive and despicable when young children and teenagers are often the victims of this kind of exploitation.

So as we 'celebrate' 180 years of Emancipation from European plantation slavery we remember not only the pains and sufferings of our forebears, but we should become even more keenly mindful of the exploitation of fellow Jamaicans that is taking place right here in Jamaica.

I cringe when the word “celebrate” is used to characterise the ending of plantation slavery in Jamaica. Celebration is a mood of joyousness and festivity that honours an important event. Though the ending of slavery was an important and necessary action that had to be carried out, in the end there is no aspect of this denigration of the human being that qualifies for festivity and joy.

To begin with, our ancestors should not have been held in slavery in the first place. The work of men like Wilberforce, Knibb and Clarkson, and the few parliamentarians who found the practice despicable ought to be lauded. But we should not forget that many in Britain fought against Emancipation because some of the representatives in Parliament held slaves themselves, or were otherwise connected by blood, kith and friendship to many of the planters who held slaves in the Caribbean.

There was no anxiety on the part of the British to free their slaves. But by the time Emancipation rolled around Britain was about ready to untether itself from this practice. Jamaica, once a jewel in the British crown as a sugar-producing country, was no longer viable as a commercial powerhouse for the British treasury. There was a grudging acknowledgement that an era was coming to an end for the viability of the slave trade. The moral force brought against the abhorrent practice by men of conscience like Wilberforce drove the final nail in the coffin of the slave trade.

But left to the planters themselves the practice would have continued, though perhaps scaled down. The grudging release of our black ancestors from the tyranny unleashed upon them by white Europeans does not evoke in me any sentiment of celebration. Neither did it merit a national holiday. It was former Jamaican Prime Minister P J Patterson's way of cementing himself in Jamaican history for promulgating yet another national holiday. It may be more appropriate to speak of observing the ending of this horrible practice than celebrating that which has left such a stain on the minds of our people. The horrible subjugation of one race by another fills the human spirit with shame and should force a resolve that ensures that this kind of exploitation will never happen again.

Yet, every so often in Jamaica we see the manifestation of the stain of slavery on the Jamaican psyche. Sex trafficking offences may be the most obvious sign of this stain, but there are other areas of national life that scream at us where the exploitation of people is concerned. One glaring area is the growing income inequality in the country and the generally low wages that Jamaicans are paid for the work they do.

When the trade union movement was active and strident in their advocacy for workers' rights, a great deal was achieved in improving the conditions of workers at the workplace. The constant battle was and continues to be about wages. But today's trade union movement is a shell of its former self and has no more bite than a mongrel barking in the night. And this is regrettable for at no other time than now is the exploitation of workers more evident.

It might not be exactly slavery in the classical definition, but we ought to be concerned about the exploitation of workers by companies and institutions that pay very little for the often onerous demands they make on their workers. One such industry is the hotel industry. There are big gains that are made by the owners of capital in this industry but to what extent is this gain shared by those who work hard on the floors, in the bedrooms, in the kitchens, and the gardens to produce the wealth of which the industry often boasts?

There is no doubt in my mind that the low wages that are being paid in the private and public sector is one of the most important factors in the low productivity and hence low growth that bedevil the Jamaican economy. And low wages increase the growing income inequality that has placed Jamaica at the top of the pile in the Caribbean. There is a direct correlation between the growing income inequality and low productivity.

I have no doubt too that with the mega profits that are being made by some of our largest corporations that more can be done for the workers to provide them with a liveable wage. A minimum wage is useful but it can be a cover for employers that can pay more to just satisfy the legal demand of the wage. The banks and other big corporate entities can be easily identified here. It seems obvious to me that the gains are not shared justly between the owners of capital and the labour that produces this gain. Any true reflection on emancipation must focus on this glaring inequality.

We can really celebrate Emancipation when we start to pay workers what they truly deserve. For it is hypocritical to speak about celebrating freedom from slavery when we have so many of our fellow Jamaicans tethered to low wages or are otherwise exploited in ways that make it impossible for them to realize their own dreams. And here I am talking about the workers who are conscientious, work hard and really produce for the employer. They do so to put food on their families' tables and they should be justly compensated.

So, as we observe or make note of this year's Emancipation Day, let us use it as a time for reflection upon the ways in which we as a people exploit each other. Let us look at our educational system and strive to remove the barriers which People's National Party President, Dr Peter Phillips describes as “educational apartheid.” We should fight harder to have a population that is 100 per cent functionally literate in the shortest time. Let those who practice religion end the tyranny of religious practices that enslave the minds of many and demean them as persons.

Those who shamelessly exploit the young, the weak and vulnerable for sexual pleasure must be shamed or imprisoned to send a clear signal that we will not tolerate this practice. The Church must become more strident in the effort. We must also keep the focus on fighting crime. How can we speak about emancipation and freedom when so many of us live like caged animals behind burglar bars? As long as crime persists at the level it does all lofty speeches about freedom sound hollow.

We must seek to improve our relationships with family members and other significant persons in our lives. As the late William Temple, once archbishop of Canterbury observed, in the end all significant engagement of human beings begins and ends in personal relationships. Relationships that are exploitative cause pain to the exploited and the exploiter. It is only as we begin to remove the vestiges of tyranny that still are part of the psyche of our people that we can really be on a road of true freedom.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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