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We should all be tied to a bond to eradicate slavery

In Washington, in 1841, Solomon Northup, a carpenter, violinist and free man, was drugged, kidnapped, shipped south and sold into slavery.

He could never have imagined that, 173 years later, his story, filmed by a black director, would be the toast of America; still less that it would happen with a black president in the White House in that same city, Washington.

Sometimes good things happen. No-one could do less than celebrate the success of 12 Years a Slave. It is universally hailed as a great film as well as an important one. But I confess, at the risk of sounding sour, that, when I went to see it, I was a little underwhelmed.

Northup's story was both new to me and familiar. Then again, I'm old enough to have seen many portrayals of the injustice of the slave trade and of the racial segregation that followed it. The latter stretched right into the 1960s and 1970s.

I found myself more moved by the series Roots and by films such as To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night. Perhaps the subject was more immediate when organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan still made the news with their white hoods and fiery crosses. In the southern states of America, the fear people were obliged to live in because of the colour of their skin wasn't a history lesson.

In understanding why 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar, I needed to remind myself that, for younger people, the story is fresh and it's one that needs told in every generation lest we forget.

Though how could we? As director Steve McQueen pointed out in his acceptance speech at the Oscars and at the Baftas, slavery isn't just history. In the world today, between 20 and 30 million people are living in slavery.

That probably is something Samuel Northup could have imagined and would have wept about.

In Qatar, the stadiums for the 2022 Football World Cup are under construction. It's a prestigious event for the country. Football fans from across the world will flock to it for entertainment, the excitement of competition and the celebration of great footballing skill.

But at what human cost? Last year alone, the death toll of Nepalese construction workers reached 185. A similar number died the year before. These were young, fit men.

They were brought in from Nepal to live in squalor and work 12 hour days in temperatures that reach 40 degrees during the summer months.

Some died from exhaustion, some from heart failure, some suicide, others in falls in unsafe working conditions. This is only the Nepalese dead.

They comprise one-sixth of Qatar's migrant workers. There are no figures for fatalities among the Indians, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis also on the site.

The International Trade Union Confederation estimates the death toll could reach 4000 before 2022. It's not as if the men are paid handsomely for the risks they are exposed to.

Many are trapped by so-called "debt". The contractors who bring them into Qatar demand repayment of the fare. It's slavery by another name.

The question is: should the event be boycotted? Would we not be hypocrites indeed to be left aghast at the brutal treatment of Solomon Northup yet look away as others like him are exploited unto death for the sake of a football tournament?

And it isn't just Qatar that is culpable. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says 20.9 million men, women and children are being dehumanised in this way. They work for little or no pay, suffer physical or mental abuse or are bought and sold like objects.

Some 4.5 million suffer sexual exploitation. A further 14.2 million endure forced labour in agriculture, construction or sweat shops.

Then there are those who are forced into the drudgery of domestic slavery.

It is difficult to assess working conditions in private houses but servants are vulnerable, especially if they live in. Pay is often low or in kind. The ILO says they are exploited by being presumed to be "on-call" 24 hours a day. They have little or no time off and often have poor accommodation and are vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse. Worldwide, more than seven million children are domestic workers.

Exploitation comes in other forms too, for example girls being forced into child marriage, a different form of domestic abuse. In 2012, Unicef estimated that 11% of women between the ages of 20-24 had been married before they were 15 years old.

Nor can we imagine that the scandal of exploitation and slavery is a problem that happens elsewhere. We all saw what happened in Bangladesh when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. We had a graphic picture of the sweat-shop conditions where our cheap clothing is manufactured.

Technically, Western-developed countries are reckoned to have 1.5 million exploited workers between them. That's 7% of the world's "slaves". I wonder if the figure is growing. Even here, there seems to be a chipping away of workers' rights.

We hear about big, rich companies with employees on zero-hours contracts. We see rising attendance at food banks and some of the people who need food have a job.

Still, we might comfort ourselves that, in world terms, we are less exploitative than many others. We have stringent health and safety rules (however much we might occasionally rail against them).

And we have a reliable legal system that will punish evils such as trafficking and slavery once alerted.

However, we continue to ask too few questions about where we source our clothes and food. For example, Human Rights Watch has revealed that the Thai fishing industry uses trafficked Cambodian and Burmese forced labour. If they fall ill and can't work, they may be killed.

So, like the slave owners' wives back in the 1800s, we may drop our eyes and refuse to see what is going on to make our lives more comfortable and privileged.

We might imagine we are separate from the section of mankind that is used and abused, disenfranchised and degraded, but we are not.

We eat our prawns, wear our affordable fashion, and save for the big treat that is the World Cup. It's true we are not on the plantation and can't hear the cries of the oppressed.

But, truly, they are just a google click away. For a modern horror story, try the Anti-Slavery International website.

I would love to have seen the talented Steve McQueen tackle a film of a modern Solomon Northup. However, call me a cynic, but I doubt whether a film about a Nepalese construction worker dying in the heat of Qatar would light up Hollywood as 12 Years a Slave did.

In the meantime, we need to pick up on McQueen's acceptance speech. He asked us to take up the cause of the slaves still in existence today.

Rather than weep for Solomon Northup and rail against his exploiters, shouldn't we open our eyes to the people our lifestyle is enslaving and work to set them free?

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