How a moral crusade against coercion criminalised the victims

Mike Phipps reviews The Truth about Modern Slavery, by Emily Kenway, published by Pluto

“There are more slaves in the world now than ever before. Or at least that’s what we’re told. A former British prime minister called modern slavery the ‘greatest human rights issue of our time’… Business leaders are signing pledges, joining anti-slavery coalitions and hiring investigators to root it out of their supply chains, Celebrities aren’t to be left out of the picture…  But is all this really what it seems? This book will suggest that the answer is no.” So contends Emily Kenway, a former policy adviser to the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, in her introduction.

Modern slavery isn’t what you think it is, she argues. In law, the term doesn’t mean anything – it’s an umbrella term covering several types of exploitation, including those where people are being told they are ‘victims’ when they consider themselves not to be and are not in need of ‘rescue’. The aim of the book is to show that ‘modern slavery’, triggering the associations it carries, is not a helpful way of framing the debate.

The abolition of the slave trade overturned a right to own someone else in law. It did not abolish – and may have actually facilitated – situations where a person cannot leave an exploitative situation due to coercion, or the threat of violence, deception or the abuse of power. These forms of exploitation, subtler than legal ownership of people, are not particularly modern. To label them slavery is to see them as a moral aberration, disconnected from their integral connection to our systems of economic exploitation.

The campaign against modern slavery has been slick, with the input of business figures keen to prove that their supply networks are not contaminated by forced labour. But in reality, people are often forced into work they don’t want to do by economic circumstances – ‘unforced’ exploitation, if you like, which the same business leaders would not see as unacceptable.

Kenway’s point is that the economic and social system we live in is the real problem. By focusing on ‘slavery’ as a moral issue, we are less inclined to look for solutions in terms of redistribution and welfare, and more disposed to look for answers in the form of powerful saviours. Inevitably, it’s the superficial symptoms, rather than the underlying causes, that get the attention.

The issue gets thornier when we look at human trafficking.  It’s not the same as slavery, although it may lead to it. At the same time, the “dichotomy between trafficking and [migrant] smuggling is flawed.”  

Trafficking appears to be morally more objectionable, giving governments greater authority to take action. But actually, states treat both trafficking and migrant smuggling as criminal justice issues with scant regard for the people involved. Governments are not particularly interested in whether the arrangements are coercive or voluntary and there is little in their harassment and persecution of migrants that is remotely connected to rooting out their forced exploitation.

Interviewed recently about this, Marjan Wijers, one of the pioneers of the Dutch Foundation against Trafficking in Women in the 1980s who was closely involved in the negotiations on the UN Trafficking Protocol, said, “Trafficking provided the perfect justification for an anti-migration agenda in the name of combating trafficking, literally under the banner of ‘if they can’t come, they cannot become victims either’.”

So feminists who had campaigned against trafficking and forced labour, initially in the sex industry, as a human rights issue, found their agenda hi-jacked by governments hostile to migration and human rights in general.

The realities of coercive trafficking and voluntary migration are complex. According to the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, “a person’s migration story can include both smuggling and trafficking, experienced at the same time.” The fact is that people want to move and are willing to pay to make this happen, even if they are not in full knowledge of the means by which they will travel.

Governments seek a moral high ground when they condemn people trafficking. But if they were genuine in their concern for the victims, they would help create safer migration pathways. “But actually, politicians cynically deploy trafficking rhetoric to legitimise harder borders, thereby creating more trafficking.”

Other restrictive policies fuel exploitation. One of the Tory government’s repeated justifications for the 2016 Immigration Act’s draconian measures was that “illegal labour exploits workers.” But in fact it’s the government’s creation of a category of “illegal labour” that criminalises undocumented people and pushes them into informal sectors of the economy where regulations don’t reach and exploitation is rife.

The use of immigration enforcement teams in labour inspections guarantees that victims of exploitation are unlikely to seek official help. They become easy prey for unscrupulous employers to overwork and underpay. In some cases, domestic workers have been violently beaten and denied pay by their employers. The Modern Slavery Act presented a perfect opportunity to fix this: it ducked it.

Other parts of the government’s legislation, which deliberately created a “hostile environment” for migrants, made it more difficult to access housing, creating greater scope for exploitation and abuse in this field too.

In fact, for all its professed concern about slavery, the government doesn’t distinguish in its records between victims of slavery and undocumented migrants in its detention centres.  The Modern Slavery Act itself, the author regards as lightweight: “a classic example of corporate social responsibility (CSR) turned into legislation.”

CSR sounds nice in theory but is undermined by the shareholders’ need for profit.  A point that could be added is that many companies run their CSR operation from their PR departments, along with their ‘greenwashing’.  Consumer pressure to stamp out modern slavery is equally mythical.

The problem is that modern slavery is not an alien practice separate from modern working conditions, but merely a phenomenon at the sharp end of the continuum. What begins as tolerable conditions, for a domestic worker for example, can quickly degenerate into slave-labour style exploitation.

The best antidote to exploitative work conditions is trade unions, but this is hardly ever mentioned in official statements about modern slavery. To do so would be to accept that modern slavery was just an extreme form of exploitation, alongside others, not some outrageous moral aberration, separate from the normal world of work. Yet the role of unions in fighting this is vital, both in addressing abuses and in challenging the power imbalance at work.

Harsh working conditions – even forced labour – may spring from the malice of the employer. They are certainly encouraged by the exploitable nature of a vulnerable workforce. But they are most likely to occur if the business is struggling to make any profit at all, given the way big brands and chains especially squeeze their suppliers. The latter frequently sell their produce at below cost price, as a way of guaranteeing future orders, a practice particularly prevalent in the fashion industry.  

Outsourcing and subcontracting compound the problem. Worse, late deliveries result in fines for the suppliers. A parliamentary inquiry was recently told of a retailer who was making £2 million a year from fines alone.

These problems are not insurmountable. Proper labour inspection would help. The Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate has just 13 staff to cover 18,000 employment agencies and 1.1 million workers – a hopeless workload. Secondly, the government should legislate to enforce mandatory human rights due diligence and to hold retainers liable for exploitation. Further, legal restrictions on the extent of outsourcing are needed. But ultimately, self-organisation by the workforce – and, in the context of international supply lines – the legal right to do this, are essential weapons against ‘modern slavery’.

Readers might object that Kenway blurs the distinction between forced labour and routine exploitation. But a real problem with those who rail against modern slavery is the forced labour they don’t address. Prison labour is one area. In 2017, several detainees in UK immigration centres challenged the government for paying them £1 an hour. The judge ruled against them on the grounds that the work was voluntary and they could refuse it. True – but the work, such as cleaning, was essential to the day-to-day functioning of the centres and impacted directly on their lives.

This is a thought-provoking book, but it has its limitations. It’s ultimately about language and the importance of how issues are framed in the public mind, to conceal their underlying causes and roots. It’s clear in retrospect that the UN Protocol on Human Trafficking is not really a human rights blueprint.

 But I was left wondering whether the framing of these issues as one of concern for the ‘victims’ had been particularly successful anyway, in the light of the abuses revealed in the attempts to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea and our own government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. Those who continue to endorse the government’s callous approach to migration after the Windrush scandal perhaps have the own reasons for doing so, but it’s unlikely to be because the issue has been cleverly mis-framed.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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