Review: The Truth About Modern Slavery

Submitted by Wheeler_G96 on 22 March, 2021 - 4:19 Author: George Wheeler
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Interview with Emily Kenway here.


When I set out to research modern slavery for my master’s thesis in 2019, academic research which sought to understand modern slavery as a part of capitalism was few and far between, and information in the public sphere challenging the mainstream understanding of modern slavery was non-existent. Emily Kenway’s The Truth About Modern Slavery is an incredibly valuable text for that exact reason. It breaks down the way that the narrative of modern slavery is used by politicians in order to further reactionary political goals, for example tightening border restrictions and criminalising sex workers.

It’s not an explicitly Marxist text; much of the academic research which deals with the structural roots of modern slavery isn’t either. However, for internationalist socialists the perspective it provides on modern slavery advocacy is, nevertheless, vital. As Kenway pointed out in out interview, the left must engage with this issue critically in order to understand fully the way that it is being used to take ground from the labour movement.

The book begins by tracking the origins and popularisation of the term modern slavery, detailing in particular how it was adopted by the Conservative party to give a moral counterweight to racist immigration policies. She then expands on this in the second chapter, breaking down forensically the way that border restrictions create the conditions that allow trafficking and modern slavery to proliferate. Similarly, she takes a scalpel to the idea that restricting sex work, be it through raid and rehabilitation policies or the Nordic model, are similarly counterproductive. Arguing that they simply force women into more dangerous and secretive positions where their power and autonomy are reduced. Kenway also takes the twin pillars of ethical consumerism and corporate social responsibility to task, addressing most directly the dynamics of global supply chains and the logic of the profit motive. Finally, she addresses who is constructed as a victim and what it means to “rescue” someone from slavery in a system that at best gives them limited welfare and at worst deports them.

By her own admission, Kenway has made a number of decisions in order to make the book accessible to those who might pick it up after seeing a news piece about it, or a left-ish reader who isn’t well versed in the issue or is approaching it from a slightly more liberal perspective. However, for readers on the left it will put words and evidence to a gut feeling that things may not be quite what they seem when we see the form that modern slavery advocacy takes.

The book is strongest when it asks readers to imagine how things could be done differently. Kenway ends each chapter with a section providing possible alternatives to the mainstream thought on how to deal with modern slavery.

With regards to migration Kenway, focuses largely on the need to create safe and legal pathways for migrants. The book stops short of calling for an extension of free movement, as Workers’ Liberty has long advocated, which is whilst a little disappointing is understandable. To fully flesh out the merits of an idea like that in an accessible way would likely stray too far from the overall scope of the book and could indeed be a book on its own. Within this broader conversation of safe, legal pathways Kenway makes an argument that echoes the calls we heard at Black Lives Matter protests to defund the police use social workers and other specially trained workers to respond to various crises. Kenway imagines a world where, as long as borders exist, migrants aren’t met with policing and punishment but instead given access to assistance based truly on their needs, regardless of race or paperwork or any other border considerations. Whilst many socialists are rightly critical of the idea of a world with any borders, we are evidently worlds away from this point and potentially moving in the opposite direction. Whilst organising to extend free movement is vital and should be continued unashamedly, in the meantime giving people tailored support at borders is a worthy principal to organise around as part of the transition to pulling down borders.

Throughout the book, Kenway also focuses on empowering workers in her discussions around what could be done better. In the chapter concerning sex work, Kenway points out that decriminalising sex work would allow women to organise to protect themselves. She points out that sex workers’ organisations are often approached by women in trafficking but aren’t in a position to help or support these women because of their own criminalisation. Kenway is clear that you can have robust anti-trafficking laws, creating a system where sex workers have enforceable rights and can act collectively, tackling exploitation in their own industry.

She continues along a similar line of argument when she addresses auditing and ethical consumerism. Pointing out that as consumers we can never understand what goes on in supply chains by their very nature; supply chains are too complicated and span too many jurisdictions for someone to know that a company’s assurances of their ethical sourcing are accurate. Equally, Kenway lambasts the idea that audits will be sufficient to recognise and fight modern slavery. She points out what socialists already know, that workers have the power to disrupt supply chains and demand better conditions, and in turn end what we call modern slavery.

One of the strongest arguments in the book is Kenway’s call for a form of internationalism among unions, at the rank-and-file level. She highlights that migratory workers are some of the most exploited in the global economy and points to safe migration education initiatives in unions in Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia as examples of what unions can do.  In one case, the Confederation of Trade Union’s Myanmar helped gain a refund for an extortionate fee charged to workers by a recruitment agency which would have likely led otherwise to a situation of debt bondage. There are several other examples through the book of examples of struggles that are needed to bring workers to the fore of the fight against modern slavery.

Kenway correctly diagnoses the ground that the labour movement has lost over the last 40 or so years, and is clear that we need to recover that ground. However, its often fairly sweeping, pointing to the global trend of union busting. Specifics about how we got here, and what we need to fight for to regain that ground are a little more scarce. For example, Kenway mentions the 2016 Trade Union Act, rightly pointing out the farce of restricting worker organisation less than a year after the Modern Slavery Act was passed, but not the litany of other anti-union laws passed since the 1980s. We must fight for the repeal of all of these laws to truly restore our right to organise, and free us to take the lead on fighting modern slavery.

In the final chapter, Kenway is more general in her recommendations. Having criticised policies of rescue that send people back to equally dangerous and exploitative conditions, she poses the question of what it means to be free. She calls into question the idea that the maximum freedom we can hope for is wage labour and being economically productive and argues that unless we build a world where people have “positive freedom” (the removal of barriers and provision of opportunities). The concept of positive freedom is largely considered a modern liberal ideal, and socialists can and must argue for a more radical idea of freedom than even this, but the underlying idea that we need to build a world where people aren’t defined by their economic and are free to develop themselves as they see fit.

Overall, Kenway’s book is a vital addition to literature on modern slavery, it builds up a convincing argument that “modern slavery” isn’t a useful way of understanding the diverse and complex forms of exploitation in the global economy. It’s particularly important as one of the first texts outside the academic sphere where modern slavery is treated as a part of capitalism, and not some unique, separate aberration that can be solved with policing. Whilst its not a sprawling work of Marxist political economy, socialists have much to gain from reading it and understanding the complexities of this issue, and how it is being used to take ground from the labour movement.

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