Lessons on improving global working conditions can be learned from the Emancipation of the Russian serfs on this day in 1861. Tsar Alexander II’s Imperial Proclamation abolished the right of landlords to restrict the movement of their tenants, or serfs, putting an end to a system which had dominated Russian society since 1649. More than 23 million former serfs could now own property, sue in courts and vote in local elections. In reality, however, prospects for the newly emancipated remained grim.
Using money lent by the landlords themselves, they were forced to buy tiny plots of land from landowners at inflated prices, with debts often being passed down from generation to generation. Such amendments benefi tted the ruling classes whom the tsar had tasked with organising the reform.
Ultimately, emancipation, along with other attempts at modernising Russia, would prove insufficient for solving the problems of Russian society, instead contributing to the disquiet which would lead to the revolutions of the twentieth century. It might be a wise move to draw parallels between those 23 million serfs and the 27-30 million people feared by the United Nations to be slaves today.
14 million slaves are thought to live in India alone – more than one per cent of its population. As we work to emancipate modern slaves, therefore, and put an end to the de facto slavery of sweat shop workers, we must be careful to ensure that our solutions do not further compromise the world’s most vulnerable. Unlike Tsar Alexander, we must not leave reform to their enslavers.