I looked over Jordan: escaping modern slavery

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Can a rugby anthem teach us anything about fighting modern slavery, asks Stirling Smith?

As Autumn gets underway, we can soon expect to hear English rugby fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at international matches.

Yet some fans may be surprised to learn that Swing Low is a “spiritual”, a type of song developed by slaves in the ante-bellum (pre-Civil War) southern USA.

Life of freedom

Spirituals are full of imagery, yearning for a life of freedom, and one of the common metaphors is the River Jordan which makes an appearance in the second verse of Swing Low.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?

(Coming for to carry me home)

I saw a band of angels coming after me

(Coming for to carry me home)

The river Jordan stood for escape.

The words of some spirituals even contained coded messages about how to escape and the routes to follow to access the “Underground Railroad”; a secret network of people, homes, and routes formed by sympathizers to assist runaway slaves in escaping to freedom. The railroad’s destination was Canada.

Spirituals often referred to another era of slavery – the Israelites in Egypt, who – led by Moses – escaped from Pharaoh after several plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptians. They eventually crossing the Jordan into the promised land. It is told in the Old Testament book of Exodus.

The point of all this history

Now you may be wondering, as if often the case with my blogs, what is the point of all this history?

Well, as the brouhaha about statues of Confederate leaders in the USA shows, the legacy of slavery is very much still with us. Don’t forget, five decades ago, people were killed for trying to de-segregate buses, and schools, and register black voters.

Racism cannot be separated from slavery in the USA.

There is even an organisation, Historians Against Slavery, which seeks to use the past to inform the struggle against slavery today. 

But the point about the underground railway, and even the Israelites escaping from Egypt, is slaves taking action themselves to fight their slavery. Rebellion!

Academics have a fancy term for this: agency.

Free choices

Agency is the capacity of human beings to act independently and to make their own free choices.

This can be individual – making a run for it to Canada – or collective, like upping en masse and taking over a slave ship, as in the famous case of the Amistad, which slaves took over in 1839 - made into a film by Steven Spielberg.

Most of the studies we read about modern slavery nowadays involve raids by police or NGOs, but rarely do we hear slaves taking action themselves – exercising agency.

But there are cases.

Fighting back against caporali

In southern Italy caporali, often linked to the mafia, operate a system that has been compared to slavery in the agriculture sector.

Workers, almost always from North Africa – and often refugees – are recruited to pick from March to November. They are paid by the crate, with low earnings, and high deductions for “housing”.

An article in the European Trade Union safety journal - snappily called HESAMAG - describes how in one case, workers did revolt - or “exercise agency” as the academics would say.

Despite being physically threatened by the caporali (these charmers are linked to the mafia, don’t forget), the workers staged what the Italian journalist Alessandro Leogrande describes as a rebellion.

Significantly, some of the workers had worked in northern Italy, before losing their jobs and drifting to the south in search of work. In northern Italy, they will have experienced or seen collective action, perhaps trade unions. 

And once the struggle started, it opened up the space for state agencies to get involved. Some caporali even ended up in jail. You will find the link here.

Break the chains

We need more stories like this. As James Connolly wrote, “there are none so fitted to break the chains as those who wear them”.

In fact, across the entire range of ETI activities, and what member companies do, we need to see more workers “exercising agency”.

Because, as we know now very well, audits don’t change much.

If the same amount of money spent on audits was spent on helping to organise workers into trade unions - that would really have an impact.


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