November 22, 2007

Anti-Slavery Award Ceremony, London

Declaring, “In the tradition of the abolitionist movement here in Great Britain, where consumers and workers joined to demand sugar free of the scourge of slavery and so helped bring an end to the slave trade, we are building an alliance of workers and consumers today in the United States to demand Fair Food and an end to slavery in its modern-day form,” Lucas Benitez accepted the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award at a gala ceremony in London last night.

The award is presented annually by Anti-Slavery International (ASI), the world’s oldest international human rights organization. On this special bicentennial anniversary of a major milestone in British abolitionist history (see below), ASI singled out the CIW for “their exceptional contribution towards tackling modern-day slavery in the United States agricultural industry.”

The ceremony was kicked off by ASI Director Aidan McQuade (at podium, above), who put the CIW’s work in the context of Britain’s storied movement to fight slavery, a fight that began in the 18th century against the Transatlantic Slave Trade and continues today against the many forms of modern-day slavery across the world.

Following his presentation, he presented Shahid Malik, Minister of Parliament for Dewsbury and International Development Minister, with an image symbolizing the nearly 50,000 signatures ASI has gathered to date on the Fight for Freedom 1807-2007 Declaration calling for measures to address slavery past and present. The campaign recalls the struggle to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when tens of thousands of ordinary citizens signed petitions in a movement that resulted in the 1807 passage of the Slave Trade Abolition Bill in the British Parliament. The signature campaign continues, and you can click here to sign the petition yourself.

Mr. Malik, Britain’s first Muslim minister, followed with a forceful speech, asking “who could have thought that we would be gathered here at the start of the 21st century in a pitched battle against forced labor?”

Then the ceremony turned to Felicity Lawrence, a special correspondent with The Guardian, one of Britain’s oldest and most respected newspapers, founded in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian to “zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty.” Ms. Lawrence, who has reported on modern-day slavery operations in the UK for the Guardian, introduced the CIW as the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award winners.

And first to speak for the CIW was Laura Germino, coordinator of the CIW’s Anti-Slavery program. She talked about the roots of the CIW’s work against modern-day slavery. Here is an excerpt from her speech:

“We began as a community organization addressing exploitation in Immokalee.  We did not set out to be an anti-slavery organization. 

In the summer of 1992, however, while CIW members were visiting a labor camp in South Carolina, we encountered a young woman, Julia Gabriel, and her friends who explained that they had fled another labor camp on an isolated farm after a worker there had been shot for wanting to leave and go work elsewhere. 

Over time, others from her crew told us of 12-hour workdays and 7-day work weeks, of being awoken at dawn by gunshots instead of alarm clocks, of a young man who was beaten for telling other workers that forced labor was illegal in the US, of women sexually assaulted by the crew bosses, and of earning no more than $20 a week in wages, once “deductions” for transport to the job, rent, food, and so forth were taken out. More than 400 workers suffered this plight.

After five years of the CIW investigating and pressuring the government to act, Julia Gabriel saw her captors sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.”

Following the award presentation, the audience — made up of people from all walks of British life, including one of the UK’s most distinguished men of letters, Sir Bernard Crick — directed questions to the panel…

… including several thoughtful questions that demonstrated that, though we are separated by an ocean, the people of London are well aware of the political context and challenges facing workers in the United States who would demand the full respect of their human rights from the industries that profit from their labor.

The evening ended with a final round of heart-felt applause for the CIW and for all engaged in the struggle to end modern-day slavery…

… and with a final group shot, award in hand and ready to carry back across that ocean to share with CIW members in Immokalee who are working overtime to get ready for the next big step in our campaign to hold the fast-food industry accountable for the conditions in the fields where its produce is harvested — the March on Burger King. Join us in Miami this Friday, November 30th, and help make history!