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London Slaves - Modern Slavery

Date of photography:  11th August 2018

Though we rarely give the matter much thought, ‘modern slaves’ can be found in many walks of life.   The more conspicuous ones might be washing your car in a supermarket car park, or giving you a manicure in one of the plethora of new nail bars that grace our suburban streets;  but rarely considered is the possibility of slaves looking after your nan in a care home, of slaves cleaning your office each night, or of slaves delivering the endless stream of stuff that you order on the internet.   The exploitation of labour, domestic servitude, debt bondage and forced prostitution are all forms of modern slavery, and while those who engage in this odious trade may well accrue huge profits, but such wealth comes at an incalculable cost to the victims, in terms of their physical and emotional wellbeing.   While the endeavour to eradicate modern slavery form the employment landscape of the United Kingdom continues, what is sadly self-evident is that as long as vast profits accrue to the perpetrators, these gains will easily outweigh the modest risk of being prosecuted and fined.   In which case, the evils of slavery, in its many modern guises, will remain as much a part of life in the 21st century as it was in Ancient Egypt, Classical Rome or the colonial plantations of the Caribbean.

The full story:

Before commencing this article, readers are urged to take a look at the photograph I have linked with it - an unremarkable street scene on an ordinary day in London.   Most of us have read articles and watched television documentaries about what we now call ‘modern slavery’;  occasionally, we are even asked to bring to the attention of the authorities any establishments or individuals whom we suspect of entrapping workers in slave-like conditions.   We are also urged to keep an eye out for individuals who might themselves be enslaved.   Amongst the more conspicuous amongst such slaves might be someone washing your car in a supermarket car park, someone giving you a manicure or some glittering new party talons in one of the plethora of new nail bars, or someone giving you a soothing treatment or a new hairdo in one of the numerous beauty salons that grace our suburban streets;  but no-one ever seems to consider that it might just as well be slaves who are caring for your relatives in a care home, slaves who clean your office during the night, or slaves who deliver the goods, or the dinner, that you ordered online.

If you were to look more closely at the photograph, would you be able to spot the modern slaves amongst the crowd?   Probably not, although there will almost certainly be some, and even though I took the photograph myself, I could not claim any superior detective skills.   On a daily basis, we may all of us meet and deal with workers who provide invaluable services that we rely on routinely, and take for granted, yet never in a million years do we stop to think that any of these hardworking people might be effectively enslaved.   On the other side of the coin, it is also perfectly possible that any of us might, as a guest in a respectable household, unknowingly converse with a dinner table companion, some obviously well-established and upstanding individual, whose business or organisation thrives on, indeed depends upon, the gross exploitation of those workers whom we should properly call ‘modern slaves’.

Going back into history, one feature that seems always to have differentiated slaves from free men was their lack of footwear:  most images from bygone eras show slaves to have been commonly barefoot.   Shoes were the prime mark of distinction between the free and the enslaved.   Since Biblical times, shoes have been seen as a badge of freedom.   In 1779, Brother Riemer noted that even when slaves dressed in their best clothes for special occasions, they were obliged to remain in bare feet.   Thankfully, we have moved on, at least in some respects:  there are no unshod feet to be seen in my photograph so, no, there are no shoe clues in this picture to help you.   In our society, we no longer tolerate the visible signs of enslavement, no branding serves as the mark of servitude, or the emblem of one human being’s brutal ownership of another.   The shackles, whips and branding irons are indeed nowhere to be seen but almost every day, the media reveal another scandal of some poor souls who are the victims of slavery or of those modern slave masters who profit from the trade in, and exploitation of, other human beings.   The UK Government alone estimates that tens of thousands of people are enslaved in Britain today, whereas world-wide, it is estimated that over 40 million people can be described as modern slaves, either in enforced labour, including prostitution, or forced marriage.

Of course, as a veteran social observer, I tend to read with some interest any articles about modern slavery in Britain, but the more I read, the more I think the term ‘modern’ could almost be misleading.   ‘Modern slavery’ might somehow suggest a phenomenon that is a product of our own age.   Having enshrined in our history books and in school text books the horrors of the Slave Trade and illustrated these with piteous images of black Africans transported to the New World in chains, do we imagine that human nature has somehow changed, that our instinct, our atavistic desire to prey on others who are weaker (poorer or more disadvantaged) than ourselves has disappeared?   Not a bit of it.   While slavery itself predates recorded history, in most cultures it has taken decades, centuries indeed, for this ancient institution to be recognised as evil, repudiated and finally outlawed.   We in the West, in Britain in particular, often congratulate ourselves on our early legislation to outlaw slavery and the trade in human beings, and it might justly be said that we do now perceive the practice of purchasing and owning people for our personal profit, keeping them in real or virtual imprisonment, and depriving them of every basic human right to be wholly unacceptable and rightly illegal. However, it must also be acknowledged that our natural inclination to constrain and to exploit the underprivileged, the powerless and the vulnerable has actually never left us.   ‘Modern slavery’ is nothing more than old-fashioned slavery with shoes.  

In the ‘modern era’, I would argue that it has not only been totalitarian regimes that have enslaved sometimes millions of their own people;  the economic system that prevails in much of the industrialised free world has the exploitation of labour woven into its essential fabric.   Marx described this as ‘the exploitation of the proletariat’ and while the term ‘proletariat’ can itself be interpreted in a variety of different ways, the harsh reality of the (necessary?) exploitation of the workforce by employers, the owners of capital/resources, remains one of the cornerstones of the modern economy.  

Of course, while the term ‘slave’ is perhaps most widely understood as a person who is the legal property of another person or persons and is thusd forced to obey their commands, amongst the other dictionary definitions of ‘slave’ are:  “a person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation”;  and, “a person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something”.   The Concise Oxford English Dictionary adds, interestingly:  “a drudge, a person of no leisure;  a mean, contemptible person”.  

In a globalised world, where international corporations outsource manufacturing to countries where labour is not organised and where wages are low, by way of of observing the dictum that profit must forever be maximised and shareholder value endlessly enhanced, one might argue that, in terms of the above definitions, these corporations knowingly and deliberately promote slavery on foreign soil because in many third-world countries those who toil in the production of goods for overseas markets are paid what are barely subsistence wages, receive few work benefits, enjoy no security of employment, have little protection from abuse, and are effectively under the complete control of their employers.   It will doubtless be argued that only the market can determine what is the proper reward for labour, in which case one must observe that total subservience to the market not only sets the lowest possible pay but, as ‘the only show in town’, it also creates a repugnant dependency:  the modern proletariat of the East has little choice but to submit to what is virtual slavery, simply in order to survive.

On their website - https://www.antislavery.org - Anti-Slavery International helpfully publishes a list of forms of modern slavery which I have taken the liberty of incorporating into this text:

Forced Labour:  Forced labour is any work or service which people are forced to do against their will, under threat of punishment.   Almost all slavery practices contain some element of forced labour.

Debt Bondage or Bonded Labour:  Debt bondage occurs when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt.   They are tricked into working for little or no pay, with no control over their debt.

Human Trafficking:  Human trafficking involves recruitment, harbouring or transporting people into a situation of exploitation through the use of violence, deception or coercion and forcing them to work against their will.

Descent-based Slavery:  Descent-based slavery describes a situation where people are born into slavery because their ancestors were captured into slavery and their families have ‘belonged’ to the slave-owning families ever since.   Slave status is passed down the maternal line.

Child Slavery: Child slavery is often confused with child labour, but is much worse. Whilst child labour is harmful for children and hinders their education and development, child slavery occurs when a child’s labour is exploited for someone else’s gain.

Forced and Early Marriage:  Child marriage can be referred to as slavery if:  the child has not genuinely given their free and informed consent;  the child is subjected to control and a sense of ‘ownership’ in the marriage itself;  the child is exploited by being forced to undertake domestic chores within the marital home or outside it;  the child is forced to engage in non-consensual sexual relations;  or, if the child cannot realistically leave or end the marriage, leading potentially to a lifetime of slavery.  

During several months of preparation for this article, I managed to interview a number of Londoners who could be described as modern slaves or who have, at some stage in their lives, been trapped in circumstances where, in order to survive, they were forced to live and work in this wealthy city of ours in conditions that were cruel, inhumane and potentially dangerous.   It is notoriously difficult to find people who are willing to talk about these sorts of conditions, on record, because they will often continue for many years to be vulnerable, insecure or in questionable residency status.   Sometimes, they will live in fear for the rest of their lives.   I would also urge you to read two, somewhat related stories in this project:  

Life of a Fugitive and Asylum Seeker Fearing for his Life both of which aim to illustrate the desperate state people can find themselves in, thus easily becoming victims of modern slavery.

What follows are some extracts from the interviews I did manage to obtain.   In order to preserve their anonymity, the individuals in question agreed to talk to me only if I reduced their names to initials and I have deliberately decided to keep no records of where they reside.   For the same reasons, other names, including place-names, have also been changed.

MX is an asylum seeker from Pakistan and a fugitive too:  having had his initial application for asylum turned down, he lost his meagre weekly support allowance of £36 as well as his modest Home Office accommodation;  he therefore finished living on the street.   He told me:  “Milan, if I were to tell you what I had to do to survive and how people treated me, simply because they could, you would have a book on your hands.  They knew that I was illegal so sometimes I was forced to work for £5 a night - on some occasions, I would’n even get that at the end of a whole day’s work, but what could I do?”  

“Recently, what has become a typical experience happened to me once more.   For several months, I worked for a small, Middle-Eastern family business, delivering pizzas during the night.   I was paid in cash, around £3 an hour, but I was also allowed to eat pizza, so  thankfully I was never hungry.   Working illegally during the night was safer, because inspections were less likely during the hours of darkness, although I really found it very hard to sleep during the day;  as a result, my health started to suffer.   When I announced to the family that, largely because of these growing health problems, I would have to leave, I was brutally ejected from the premises and told never to come back.   When I returned the next day just to pick up the week’s wages that I was owed, and to collect the clothes I had kept there, the owner threw me out, threatening to call the Police.   In one go, I lost my job, my wages and my property and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it;  if you are illegal, this is the way you have to live.”

A few weeks later, I interviewed MS, a Bangladeshi asylum seeker in his fifties;  he had long been awaiting a Home Office reassessment of his application and was no longer entitled to any State assistance whatsoever, so for years he has had to live very modestly, scraping together a living by doing anything he can find.

His predicament prompts me to refer to an illuminating, investigative article by Kate Lyons (published in The Guardian).   She writes about asylum seekers who have been left to wait for 20 years for a Home Office decision on their status.   During 2017, there were seventeen people who had been forced to wait longer than 15 years, and four of these in excess of 20 years.   During that time, they were expected to live on a little over £5 per day (a much lower rate, no doubt, in years gone by) and they were not allowed to work;  effectively stuck in a truly ‘Kafka-esque’ limbo, some simply gave up and left the country, others just died waiting.   Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, described the housing conditions for asylum seekers as “disgraceful”, while Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, commented:  “Forcing some people to wait more than 15 years for a decision on their asylum claim - while banned from work and living below the poverty line - is utterly barbaric.”    In its defence, the Home Office published figures claiming that during 2017, 75% of applicants had had their decision within six months and only the more complex cases faced delays.   But why, in a civilised democratic country with a long, proud tradition of fairness and the upholding of human rights, should a minority of asylum seekers, however small the actual number, be forced to wait for over fifteen years for a decision?  

Returning to MS, in a quiet, almost hushed voice, he tells me:  “I was a teacher of Mathematics back home.   I now teach Mathematics at a private Tuition Centre.   They know that I am illegal, so I get paid in cash and there are no records of me working there.   I teach 16+ pupils, 5 of them in two-hourly blocks.   I never know how many hours I will be asked to teach, so on some days I am there all day, mostly without work or with only a little work.   Originally, I got £10 per hour, but they gradually reduced that to £8 and a few weeks ago, it went down to £6.   They did that because they could, because they know I am illegal and there’s nothing I can do about it.   If anyone came to inspect the place, there are no records anywhere to say that I have worked there for over a year.   I did complain in fact and I asked for an explanation of why I’d had such a sudden cut in my wages, but the response was just a case of, ‘Take it or leave it.   If you make a fuss, you know what the consequences will be, you’ll end up back in the Detention Centre.’ ”

MS went on:  “At one point, I worked for the company that distributes the City AM newspaper on the streets - its mainly aimed at finance people, people who work in the City.   I was paid £6 an hour, no questions asked.   Most of the other guys were illegals too.   The job gets done, at minimum cost, and no-one asks how or by whom.”

“Once, I even managed to get a job as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in Brick Lane.   It was through one of those employment agencies that doesn’t ask too many questions and works with the ‘grey economy’, which is much larger than people imagine.   I worked long hours every day, in two ‘split shifts’, twelve to two and then three to midnight, for which I was paid £250 for a week’s work.   But that didn’t last long, only for three weeks in fact, because as soon as the owners realised I was Illegal, my name was taken off the list of employees and I was offered the same work but for £100 a week less. They told me that this reduction was to compensate them for being fined if they were found out employing illegal staff.   Indeed, one day an enforcement vehicle was seen in the street, so I was asked to leave urgently, through the kitchen door, and told not come back.   I never received my wages for that week either.   If you’re illegal, it is nothing unusual to work a 40-hour week in an Indian restaurant for £120 - effectively, you’re being made to work for £3.00 an hour.”

“In another restaurant, I even worked as a kitchen porter and ‘washer upper’ for some weeks but I developed a terrible rash on my hands, as a result of the constant exposure to harsh detergents.   I was forced to seek medical attention and when I returned with a one-week Sick Note, they simply refused to pay me. ‘You are not fit to work,’ they said, ‘so go!’   They just sacked me on the spot.”

I asked MS how, as a well-qualified, professional man, he’d coped with this continuous degrading exploitation and the cruel and unfair treatment that he had had to endure.   His reply was simple:   “That’s how it is:  they pay you as little as they wish, and they sack you whenever they feel like it - its just like being back home In Bangladesh where treatment like this is the norm.   They do it simply because they can.”   MS then concluded with what I thought was an astonishing comment:  “If I were the owner, I would probably do the same!”   I stared at him in amazement but quickly realised that perhaps the exploited understand the nature of exploitation rather better than the rest of us.

A few weeks later, I interviewed another young Pakistani man;  being gay in a Muslim country, MA was in fear for his life and therefore sought asylum in the UK.   Home Office staff turned down his application because they refused to believe that he was gay and therefore wouldn’t accept he was in any danger in his own country or, indeed, within his own family.   Having arrived in 2014, and now awaiting the outcome of his appeal against this decision, he no longer receives any official support whatsoever and thus, like all the others in the same predicament, he is forced to accept whatever work he can find in the ‘grey economy’.  

MA agreed to my quoting him strictly on the basis of preserving his anonymity, and these are his words:  “Initially, I lived in Southall, where a Pakistani family took me in and gave me accommodation and food.   To earn my keep, I did all the work:  I would do the housework, help in the kitchen, and do the shopping, but I was never accepted as one of them, and they paid me nothing, just giving me my board and lodging.   However, as I’d trained as a tailor, friends would sometimes give me £2, £3, occasionally even £5, for doing small repairs or alterations for them, so that was the only only cash I had.  This went on for a whole year.   In the house, I was treated like a servant, constantly taking orders from members of the family;  it was exactly like being a slave.   But Milan, you do have to understand, this would be quite normal behaviour in Pakistan.   Then, when I applied for asylum and gave their address as my home, they took offence and just kicked me out.   While awaiting a decision, I had to go and live in Leeds, in Home Office accommodation, where I had to survive on their generous allowance of £36 per week, while working as an unpaid volunteer.   On one occasion, I remember, I managed to get work on a construction site, very heavy work, but after three days they refused to pay me.  They felt they could get away with this because they knew I was Illegal.”

“Now, having been turned down, I’m awaiting the outcome of my appeal and I’m currently working as a tailor.   I work in the basement of a shop that does tailoring but I have to work during the night.   At 8.00 pm, they put up the shutters and then I start my night’s work.   They feed me and I do have a small room to live in but I must always keep myself out of sight.   I’m recognised as a quality tailor so I get a percentage of the cost of any garment I produce, though this only works out at about £3 an hour and from that, they make deductions for food and accommodation.   Over a  weekend, I will often work for three days and nights on the go, three days without sleep and without seeing an hour of daylight.   Recently, as we went through Ramadan, I was working twenty hours a day, fasting of course and with only four hours’ sleep.   I am a young man, I work hard but this is my life.   I have begun to wonder, will I ever be free?”

Britain recently passed The Modern Slavery Act (2015) but its rhetorical impact seems to have been considerably greater than any action that has flowed from it - many in the field felt that it concentrated too heavily on policing, while it secured insufficient protection for victims.   Kevin Hyland, the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, has subsequently observed:  “Only 1% of the victims of slavery have a chance to see their exploiter brought to justice.”

The UK Government boasts endlessly of its glittering record in freeing industry and the wider economy from the shackles of excessive regulation - red tape has been put on the bonfire.   In this increasingly deregulated environment, unscrupulous employers will rarely miss an opportunity to reduce labour costs, often by shedding permanent staff and replacing them with the use of subcontractors and the self-employed.   This is what we increasingly describe as the ‘gig economy’, where hundreds of thousands of low-paid employees are now working without contracts of employment, with no security, no holiday pay, no pensions, and sometimes even without sick pay.   This has quickly become an established technique for reducing overheads and increasing corporate profit.   It is almost as if, in barely a decade, over a century’s accumulated employment law, designed to protect workers from the exploitation of unscrupulous employers, has been cast aside and the weakest members of the workforce left at the mercy of the most rapacious.    

The Minimum Wage may be statutory and there may well be a regionally-defined ‘Living Wage’ that can effectively elevate workers above the level of absolute poverty, but there is now, at the disposal of employers, such an array of legal ploys that circumvent the payment of these rates that one might be led to wonder whether it was always HM Government’s principal intention to create the maximum flexibility of labour, irrespective of its much-vaunted commitment to reduce the iniquitous exploitation of workers. Whilst no-one can be surprised that the private sector will assuredly do anything legal to maximise profit, as well as some things where legality is moot, it is deeply to be regretted that, setting aside the jolly time to be had avoiding (though not ‘evading’) taxation, most of these devices have been at the expense of workers.   Our very own Government, that so proudly enshrines in statute society’s repudiation of the evils of modern slavery, has Departments of State that have, over recent years, been found to have consorted with subcontractors, undoubtedly with the intention of ensuring that its cleaners and other low-grade support staff are paid the absolute minimum and sometimes denied even those rates of pay that are guaranteed by such statutes as the Government has itself passed into law.

The irony does not stop there:  on its website, NHS England proudly boasts its full commitment to recognising and dealing effectively with the victims of modern slavery, “including sexual exploitation, forced labour, and domestic servitude.”   Its practice may not always, in all respects, give substance to these lofty ideals.   Recently, I interviewed MG, a professional psychoanalyst/psychotherapist who has worked within the Health Service for many years;  he told me:  “Having completed my training abroad, I needed some hands-on experience of clinical work so I took up a placement at one of London’s university hospitals, working with some of their most difficult psychotic patients.   To my great surprise, there I discovered that the great majority of experienced staff within the section were not paid at all.   I was truly shocked;  in my country, this would have been unimaginable.”  

“All these psychotherapy posts were classified as ‘honorary’, as indeed was my own post.   This most important facility within the NHS system was wholly supported on the shoulders of unpaid staff!   Most of them seemed perfectly happy to be offered their placements on these terms and felt privileged to work in what was a highly reputable institution;  indeed, this particular establishment was seen by some as the best of its kind in the world.   Accordingly, because the demand for placements there was always high, it became the norm to invite staff to work for free and to expect them to be happy about it.   It is certainly true that no-one ever asked why anyone should undertake this quite challenging work for nothing;  it was seen as necessary experience that would prove immensely useful later on, offering staff the prospect of highly-paid jobs in the future.   Of course, those who could not support themselves financially, or secure the support of their spouses or parents, would never have the opportunity to benefit from this elite ‘work experience’ scheme.   Milan, I perceived this to be nothing but a polite, highly elevated form of slavery.   It is almost slavery institutionalised.”  

Sectors of British agriculture, market gardening in particular, depend heavily on a seasonal, immigrant workforce that is quite often low-skilled;  workers face exploitative wages, unsanitary (sometimes unsafe) living and working conditions, and they are often subject to callous supervisors who are controlling, demanding, and occasionally violent.   Some such workers won’t have adequate English and will therefore be unaware of their employment rights, rendering them even more vulnerable.   While the National Farmers’ Union maintains that farmers take their responsibilities in this area seriously, in practice, they often delegate these responsibilities to facilities managers or gang-masters who are themselves the actual employers of this subservient, itinerant workforce.   Yet again, political rhetoric speaks louder than deeds:  whilst appropriate legislation is in place, inspectors and thus inspections are few and prosecutions are rare.   While agri-businesses with a turnover exceeding £36 million are obliged to produce an annual statement, showing what they have done to ensure that their operations are free of slavery, fewer than half of them even bothered to comply with this inadequate, paper exercise.   And a turnover of £36 million seems a very high threshold, clearly designed to exclude thousands of smaller producers.  

Arranged marriages are nothing new to a number of ethnic groups living in London, but great care must be taken to differentiate these from unions that are arranged by relatives but lack the consent of one or both parties:  such arrangements can rightly be described as ‘forced marriages’.   Over 3,500 reports of forced marriages were made to the Police during the last three years but given the clear likelihood of under-reporting, the actual number of such marriages is most likely significantly greater.    Karma Nirvana, headed up by Jasvinder Sanghera (featured previously in my Outsiders in London exhibition) has received over 8,800 calls regarding forced marriage, including 200 that concerned children under 15, some of whom were 10.   Parosha Chandran, one of the UK’s leading anti-slavery barristers and an authority in this field, has said:  “The modern-day meaning of slavery doesn’t require in law that you own somebody.   Instead, it means you treat someone as if they were your property.   It’s crucial that authorities acknowledge this in forced marriage cases.   There has been no proper consideration in legal terms that a forced marriage involves elements of slavery – where a person is treated as if they are the property of the family they were married into.”  

Because of this shortcoming in the law, forced marriage is not automatically seen as an indicator of modern slavery but it is becoming clear that this anomaly needs to be rectified in future amendments to anti-slavery legislation.   Jasvinder Sanghera has added:  “The crime has not been given the same spotlight as slavery but there remains a clear opportunity to raise the debate of forced marriage as part of the human trafficking agenda in the form of a national campaign.”   Of course, a forced marriage quite often involves de facto human trafficking, as well as exploitation and sexual slavery.  Thanks to the current legislation, imperfect though it may be, 1,500 Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPOs) have so far been issued, though some maintain that this reveals just the tip of the iceberg. e

South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) is mentioned most often whenever ‘debt bondage’ is discussed.   This describes a situation where an individual person, or a family, is forced to work to pay off a debt.   The debtors are forced into working for little or no pay and often have no information about, or control over, the progress of their debt repayment.   If it is not repaid (as is often the case, for repayments are commonly rigged and debtors deceived and defrauded) it will be inherited by the children and thus a new generation will be enslaved too.   In Britain, gang-masters often import labourers into the UK, paying for their travel, finding accommodation for them and securing their employment;  sometimes, this process will involve illegal trafficking.   In the end, these labourers are saddled with debts over which they had little control and which they will be forced to repay in instalments, back to the gang-master, who will quite frequently have confiscated their passports as a guarantee that every penny will be reimursed.   In this situation, workers are effectively trapped in an unfamiliar country, whose language may well be unknown to them, and are thus completely at the mercy of the gang-master.

Labour exploitation, domestic servitude, debt bondage and forced prostitution are all forms of modern slavery.   Those who organise this odious trade, and who engage in it, may well accrue great profits, but such wealth comes at an incalculable cost to the victims, in terms of their physical and emotional wellbeing, not to mention the very significant cost to the country itself - it is estimated that around £4.3 billion is expended on law enforcement, health services, and other provisions made to combat modern slavery and to ameliorate its injurious effects.   Alas, while a great deal is done in the continuing endeavour to remove modern slavery form the employment landscape of the United Kingdom, what is sadly quite clear is that as long as vast profits accrue to those who deal in it, these will outweigh the modest risk of prosecution.   In which case, the evils of slavery, in the many modern guises that are described in this article (and in many more that are not) will remain as much a part of life in the 21st century as it was in Egypt, Rome or the plantations of the Caribbean.


Text edited:  20th August 2018

Page modified: 17th March 2019