This article was originally published in The Journal on 17.07.2019
Two months ago today I was gearing up for an unexpected and difficult European election campaign. But rewind a few more months and I would have found it hard to believe that I’d even be able to stand as a candidate in the UK anymore. Politics can be a volatile affair, and these turbulent times are proving just that. Needless to say, I am delighted and proud to return to Brussels to represent the North East for as long as possible.
As divided as views may be about the European Union, I see it as a force for good and a successful peace project. EU institutions have done incredible groundwork on tackling the climate emergency and invested billions in regions forgotten by national governments - the North East being a prime example. The EU is clamping down on tax avoiders and taking on tech, internet and online retail giants in a battle that aims to put consumers before profit. It’s also at the forefront of developing new jobs for a greener economy and ensuring equal rights for all citizens of its Member States.
The latter sits at the very core of EU values and it’s a common thread in all policy areas. It’s the reason why the European Pillar of Social Rights took shape - building a more inclusive and fairer European Union with equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion for everyone. Aligning all EU countries to this social pillar is absolutely vital in combatting one of the most harrowing and troubling problems of our society - Modern Day Slavery.
A lucrative form of crime, modern day slavery generates profits of dozens of billions of pounds for the perpetrators each year – and is allegedly more profitable than the drugs trade. Worldwide, the trafficking of human beings for purposes of forced labour, criminal activities or sexual exploitation affects around 24m people and the main culprits for this are socio-economic instability, gender inequality and poverty. Worryingly, the UK tops the list of EU countries with the highest number of registered victims. Admittedly, it is also a world leader in modern slavery legislation and action against the issue, which could mean that the high number of registered victims is due to the efficiency of relevant authorities and charities in identifying and solving the problem. It also means people who have previously slipped through the net are hopefully receiving the support they deserve. However, the fact that the victims exist in the first place is a grim state of affairs.
Just the other day, what was dubbed the “most ambitious, extensive and prolific” modern day slavery network was uncovered in Britain. Around 400 victims were tricked with the promise of gainful employment and instead kept in squalid conditions and forced to work for as little as 50p a day.
The second most concerning area in England and Wales, after London, is the North East where hundreds of victims have been referred to a modern day slavery charity since 2015. It’s an alarming statistic for a region that is already dealing with difficulties such as higher levels of unemployment, rough-sleeping and child poverty. This is why it’s vital that the next Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) to succeed Dame Vera Baird and oversee Northumbria’s police force in tackling horrendous crimes such as modern day slavery. Labour’s candidate Kim McGuinness is the perfect candidate for the role, embedded in the community as a Councillor and charity worker.
Since the beginning of my journey as your Labour MEP, I have collaborated with the PCCs for the North East on tackling modern slavery and human trafficking in an effort to bring together police, public agencies and non-governmental actors in developing a regional strategy. As a member of the European Parliament's international trade committee, I am working with human rights defenders around the world to eradicate modern day slavery in our supply chains whether it's the workers in Malaysia's rubber industry making gloves for the NHS or garment workers in Bangladesh's sweatshops.
Working together at a regional level and collaborating efficiently with our neighbours, as part of the EU, is the only way forward in eradicating this heinous crime that doesn't belong to modern day, but distant centuries – if anywhere at all.