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Banks’ links to slavery are not a thing of the past

Banks’ links to slavery are not a thing of the past

1 Jul 2020

Following the death of George Floyd in the US last month and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and campaigns worldwide, governments have come under great pressure to take action against racism. It was just a matter of time before other organisations, including financial institutions (FIs), were put under scrutiny for their links to colonialism and slavery. While all eyes are on the “racist” side of the story (and rightly so), are we wasting an opportunity to raise awareness of the billions of slaves who are still out there?

In 1807, under the Slave Travel Act of the United Kingdom, parliament made the trading of slaves (capture, transportation and selling) illegal within the British Empire. However, it was 26 more years before slavery itself was abolished and made illegal via the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Whilst no compensation was paid to any slave, the Act recognised 46,000 slave owners and provided them such a sum of financial compensation that the UK government only fully repaid it in 2015.

On June 18th, the Bank of England (BoE) publicly apologised for the role of its - at least 25 - former governors and directors who were involved in the slave trade and pledged to remove all their statues and paintings from its Threadneedle Street HQ. Barclays, HSBC, and Lloyds are also among the organisations with historic links to slavery and, since the news broke, they have all issued statements distancing themselves from the practice of “buying and selling people”, reaffirming their commitment to promote a culture of inclusiveness.

Slavery is far from over

When our FIs, banks, governments and even the Church of England apologise for their links to slavery, we are all picturing those millions of Africans and their descendants who were kidnapped, brutally treated, forced to pick cotton or cut the sugar in the American south and the old European Caribbean.

Many institutions have acknowledged their past.

🔺 “We can’t change what’s gone before us, only how we go forward.” Barclays

🔺 “We are committed to learning from the past and, in particular, anything that would be inconsistent with our values today.” HSBC

🔺“A lot has changed during the 300-year history of our brands and while we have much within our heritage to be proud of, we can’t be proud of it all.” Lloyds

However, is there more that we can do to eradicate slavery from our present and future? Clearly the above image of slavery is outdated. But don’t let yourselves be fooled. Slaves never disappeared. Today modern slavery affects more than 40 million people worldwide – more than at any other time in history. They are men, women, children; they are young and old. In the UK alone, thousands of people are victims of forced labour, debt bondage, sexual exploitation, and other forms of modern slavery and human trafficking (MSHT).

In the eyes of exploiters – the modern version of the slave owner - victims are not human beings. They are money. And who processes this money? A large percentage of banks are involved in processing the $150 billion in proceeds that MSHT generate every year. Whilst many of them don’t have the expertise, the time, or the resources to recognise it, anyone working in the financial industry like us knows that slavery money is still flowing through our bank's systems.

Let us not miss the opportunity to really change something that remains far from being “a thing of the past”.