"Modern slavery": grandstanding vs helping workers organise

Submitted by AWL on 2 March, 2021 - 7:04
Modern slavery

Emily Kenway is a former adviser to the UK’s first Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the author of The Truth About Modern Slavery (Pluto Press, 2021). She spoke to George Wheeler for Solidarity.

(The book is reviewed here.)


Can you explain a little of what the book is about, and why you wrote it?

The book is about how modern slavery is a particular narrative about exploitation, constructed largely by philanthrocapitalists, anti-sex work activists and anti-migrant politicians. It shows how calling exploitation “modern slavery”, and all that this entails, suggests a moral crusade but undermines the actions needed to improve the lives of those at the bottom of global hierarchies. I felt it needed to be written largely because I saw people on the “left” completely missing this, and either regurgitating the narrative without critical thought, or dismissing the whole idea because “all work is exploitation”, which doesn’t investigate or change the material conditions of those who need that change now.

Can you expand on where the term “modern slavery” came from and the context it’s used in?

There's no one moment where the phrase was coined, but there are three strands that brought it into common parlance. First, the end of the Soviet Union saw politicians in the West getting really worried about East-West criminal migration. There was heightened political awareness of human trafficking, because it fits well with migration fears. Human trafficking exists, and it's not a new crime, but that concern about migration raised it up the political agenda. You have the idea of exploitation being criminal and a migration issue when there are better ways to understand it.

Secondly, there was an epiphany among some capitalists and academics, essentially wealthy men who have a very secure economic standing themselves, and they’re really shocked when they learn about the exploitation going on, so you get this almost religious fervour against this thing that they think they've discovered. Kevin Bales, one of the key academics involved, talks about how ending modern slavery is about saving our own souls; there’s a strong Christian morality vibe.

Thirdly, in the UK campaigners realised it was a palatable way to get politicians to listen to the endemic problem of exploitation and adopted it to lobby for funding. This then segwayed into Theresa May and the Tory government using it as a moral counterweight to the hostile environment [for migrants]. It’s clear in her speeches where she was very clearly playing to the right on immigration and then modern slavery is brought in to bring a sense of justice and fairness. It's an evolving vehicle that brings with it fears about immigration and a kind of a conservative, criminal lens, with a kind of heroic grandstanding as a counterweight to really abhorrent policies.

You were an adviser to the Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and in the field for a long time, but the book is critical of the mainstream approach to these issues. What was it that made you question some of the underpinnings of that approach?

Listening to people who are experiencing exploitation or were being put at risk of it, rather than just deciding for myself what I thought things were. There's no way that you can work closely on exploitation of migrant domestic workers without encountering the problem of how immigration policy is, of what's making them vulnerable. When you understand that the veil lifts from your eyes; it’s not a bad apple employer mistreating someone, but a circumstance of vulnerability constructed by visa status, the structural underpinnings are clear.

Also, working with the private sector, it’s clear how modern slavery is used to avoid giving workers proper rights, or vehicles to protect their rights. If you raise trade unions with them, they say, essentially, “That's got nothing to do with modern slavery because it’s a rare, extreme crime that we can spot with audits”. It’s used to create a very exceptionalised version of exploitation. I got to a point where it was it was so dissonant: what I was saying in my daily work versus what I understood to be the truth.

Modern slavery is an umbrella term for several forms of exploitation; are there issues with constructing it this way?

One hundred per cent. Framing it like this has made us think that there should be a single way of understanding vastly different circumstances, all over the world, affecting all genders, in all sectors. Then people look for silver bullet solutions, which isn’t helpful. It allows solutions that have no contextual awareness, that don't listen to people's actual situations, so you can create a rationale to go and “rescue” people without actually understanding any of the economic circumstances, cultural dynamics or so on.

Also, making it into a singular idea stops us from seeing the driving causes. Having a singular category implies there’s a singular cause, individual deviance or organised crime. But understanding what makes people vulnerable creates a much more complex picture, which requires a much broader range of solutions. For me, it's not a useful term at all. Look at what's left out, in the UK, migrants in detention centres working for a pound an hour. They have a choice, but not really. Similarly, prison labour in the US… There's so many examples of what's left out of that picture, which is very convenient to people with power. Who is it deciding what is or isn’t sufficient exploitation to constitute modern slavery?

How does the modern slavery framing interact with immigration and border policy?

We often think of trafficking as caused by kidnapping or abduction, and that happens, but it's very rare. Most of the exploitation that involves borders, like trafficking, is migration gone wrong. Once we start to understand that we can see that border regimes create trafficking, they create opportunity for people to offend. There are actual offenders, and horrible things being done to people and we shouldn’t forget that, but for a crime to happen there needs to be an opportunity to commit that crime. The limited research on who traffickers are suggests they are generalists rather than specialists. They are people looking to make money in some way; it could be bringing in cigarettes, it could be trafficking people, or many other things.

When we make borders stricter and we have too few safe, legal routes, lack of regularisation and no way for anyone to travel under the UN Refugee Convention, we create a pool of people who have no way of travelling safely. Some might not be exploited but a lot of them will be, on the journey or at their destination, because they have no way of accessing the country safety. There’s nowhere they can go to [to report exploitation] without being detained and deported.

Understanding that borders create the market for trafficking is really important because usually politicians portray borders as the solution to trafficking.

In the book I go into the ways rhetoric of protecting marginalised people is being deployed to legitimise the things that are making their lives horrific and far worse. We see it frequently with Priti Patel and lots of conservative politicians talking about boats coming from Calais. Trump used to do the same with Mexico. It's also a view really strongly held by the public if you start talking about this. “Well, we have to keep the traffickers out”. The idea of a racialised interloper is really powerful and there are very few stories of those who have migrated clandestinely, describing why they did so and what it was like, to counter that. We really need to start hearing more of those stories in order to flip the narrative. We need to give people safe, legal routes to come here. This couldn't be further away from where our politics is currently is, but we really have to do something because the lack of pathways means there will be people who are ending up in horrific situations today, tonight.

Is the term modern slavery deployed in a way that hurts both victims of sexual exploitation and sex workers?

I think this is one of the most kind of shocking chapters in the book, when you start peering underneath, at what's really going on. With a legal labour sector exploitation is treated like an aberration or contaminant, not something innate to the dynamics of that industry. However, the entire sex work sector is treated as the aberration and groups that have always wanted sex work not to exist – either from a religious moral standpoint or from a “radical feminist”, all sex work is exploitation perspective – have taken the issue of trafficking and used it to say that the entire sex industry is essentially rife with trafficking or is a form of trafficking.

It’s really problematic, because it makes something seem criminal and immoral when there are social and economic causes. If you speak to sex workers about why they are doing it, the vast majority will give a livelihood strategy reason, it's incredibly rare that it's anything else. So if we understand the sex sector as populated solely by villainous pimps and passive exploited women, we lose sight of the fact that those economic factors are why people sell sexual services. It's fine not to not to like sex work existing, most sex workers I know don't like it, but it does exist.

Moreover, conflating exploitation and sex work, rather than understanding exploitation being a part of the industry, as it is in every industry, is incredibly disrespectful to women who actually are forcibly trafficked and sexually exploited.

It also stops us leveraging a lot of the things we could leverage to tackle trafficking in the sex sector. Sex worker-led organisations have trafficking victims coming to them, but they can't connect with law enforcement or union organising because they are criminalised. It prevents them having a first line of defence in their sector, like we would hope unions are in other sectors, and creates a perfect territory for would-be offenders. It ends up a secretive, shadow part of the economy where you can make loads of money from someone instead of making sure that there's rights given to those people with a strong anti-trafficking strategy alongside that.

Furthermore, if we understand exploitation is happening because of a kind of villainous force, rather than a lack of better options and social safety nets, the preferred prescription for solving it is to go in, “save the victim”, and then put them into a clinic, programme or support system. This is supposed to liberate them and send them on to a better life, but these raids rarely send any women into support services and, in fact, often arrest and sometimes deport them.

Once “rescued” they can also be funnelled into other work, with potentially equivalent health and safety risks of different types, for example exploitative supply chain work. We may not like the fact that sex work can be better a circumstance for them, but that's the reality of the global economy and that of the UK.

Solidarity has recently carried debate around the “Nordic Model”. Can you explain how it operates with regards to all this?

I find it important to understand why people like the sound of the Nordic model. I understand that it can sound good to criminalise the men buying sex. Unfortunately, it doesn't tackle trafficking, and it makes the lives of women selling sex worse, poorer and more vulnerable to violence. There is limited evidence that the size of the overall sex sector contracts when you have the Nordic model, but only by about 11%, and the clients who are left are more likely to be violent and abusive, because they view themselves as taking a risk. It also doesn’t reduce the number of people selling sexual services, because it's still a livelihood strategy. None of the countries that have introduced the Nordic model have got anything like the safety net needed to give people a viable alternative livelihood.

It also doesn’t decriminalise the women, for example, in Ireland in 2019 two migrant sex workers, one of whom was pregnant, were jailed under brothel-keeping laws, because they lived together for safety. All the countries that have the Nordic model retain similar laws because the model is not driven by the best interests of women on the margins of society, but by an understandable dislike of men buying sex.

Women also may be more likely to go into exploitative brothels because when police stake out apartments to arrest clients, livelihoods disappear, and they are forced to go somewhere that has more outreach but gives them less autonomy.

In countries where it exists, there hasn’t even been a reduction of victims of trafficking after it has come in, so it’s a policy that on all grounds patently doesn't work.

What are the issues with current regulations around this?

The issue is partly companies that are avoiding what they should be doing, but also governments refusing to regulate because of neoliberal, small-government ideology. Corporations consistently aren’t even complying with the piecemeal regulations in the Modern Slavery Act, which rely on “corporate social responsibility” [CSR] to handle modern slavery.

CSR leaves corporations to determine the solutions to issues they create themselves voluntarily because interfering in the market is seen as bad for the economy. It’s been an emperor's new clothes situation because it doesn’t require them to actually do anything. Most companies will be doing things like putting up posters in their canteen with a slavery helpline or training managers to “spot the signs”. They may also do periodic audits, but without ever speaking to workers and never doing anything that touches their business model, which is what drives the problem.

For example, they should be paying enough to their suppliers for workers to earn a decent wage, not be forced to do unpaid overtime, and for the supplier not to shadow subcontract to unregulated parts of the economy. Instead, they’ll have an ethical sourcing policy saying that their suppliers do not have any slavery happening and that’ll be all. With Boohoo the response to the exposés of what’s been happening in Leicester [where clothing factories were found to be paying below the minimum wage] was to cut off ties with loads of their suppliers and to start building a high-tech “model factory”, instead of paying the factories more money and requiring them to pay the workers living wages. It’s all a distraction, so we don’t look at their business model.

Hand in hand with that CSR approach goes the “vote with your pound”, conscious consumer-type politics?

Consumers are consistently pointed to by government as part of the solution to modern slavery, and partly that's born of a political ideology says the state doesn't have a role to play in regulating things. It's also being very attractive to the public: it's almost impossible for me to an interview without the last question being, “What can the we do?”

Looking for a neat solution like that is born of a total misunderstanding of what we're talking about here. We all have a role to play in supporting our communities but that's not unique to modern slavery. If someone's just been mugged and they run up to you, you'll probably look after them. This is the basics of how human community ought to work. There are cases where if someone had reported concerns or intervened in some way, there were people who would have got out of bad situations sooner.

However, when it comes to big brands, products and modern slavery in the supply chains, we cannot be the solution. You wouldn't be able to eat enough or dress enough if you tried to shop without encountering it. It’s also too complicated; production and supply chains are in so many different jurisdictions with their own labour laws. How do you know if that company is adhering to the labour law in China vs India vs Bangladesh? You can’t. How do you know that what they're reporting is true? You can’t. There is just no practical way of managing that, even for the most engaged, concerned person.

A more logical way of thinking would be to empower workers. Does this company have recognised independent trade unions? What do those trade unions say is going on now? It would tell you what's going on from people that are actually there and know what they’re talking about. It’s symptomatic of capitalist arrogance that the workers should be voiceless, and the solution should be buying things.

In the UK, we hear a lot about small high street businesses, nail bars and hand car washes. The problem is these people have no opportunities that are as good or better and intervening without considering that can be harmful. It's not OK that we're living in that economy and that society, but the solution can’t be to dispossess them further.

What can the labour movement do?

First and foremost, the labour movement must recognise the role that modern slavery discourse is playing in relation to its own goals. In the labour movement there’s often a lack of engagement with modern slavery and a buying into the idea that it’s individual criminal acts, or arguing it’s no different from other exploitation under capitalism. I don't think either are particularly useful because right now politicians in power are using the idea of modern slavery to take ground from the labour movement. I've been told plenty of times, when I bring up unions, that that's irrelevant or mission creep. Understanding that this is a political tool that is being wielded against their goals and having a way to respond to that is really important.

The UN special rapporteur on human trafficking said recently that where you have lots of labour abuses, you have a breeding ground for the severe cases of exploitation. The role of unions is to stop that breeding ground existing. The labour movement should be setting out its stall there as the front-line defender of all of the workforce.

The role of unions and the labour movement is also to challenge the structures that are making it impossible to stop exploitation. For example, fights against outsourcing are amazing for this. It's almost like a Jenga game, what can you take out that can start making the whole thing fall down?

Unions need to be better at supporting migratory workers; there’s an idea that they’re unorganisable, which is wrong. We live in a globalised economy and we need to connect organisations globally to provide people with support and solidarity networks that travel with them. This needs to be at a rank-and-file level with members talking to each other, not just head offices and federations. A farmworker coming to the UK for a season of picking should be passed to a named organiser in the appropriate organisation. That way they can access information about their rights. It’s happening at some migrant organisations, when people are deported, but not in the labour movement. If someone moves town or city, they can be passed to a different branch, but we aren’t reaching migrant workers that way.

Brexit will bring about more short term visas, which breed exploitation, so organising this way now is vital.

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