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Defining modern slavery out of existence: who benefits?

Academics who suggest that the very idea of ‘modern slavery’ is inane and clichéd undermine anti-slavery activism and deny an appalling reality for thousands who are trafficked, sold and enslaved.

The sophistry begins with the title. A new book by Julia O’Connell Davidson has the words ‘Modern Slavery’ in its title, The Margins of Freedom: Modern Slavery, but actually sets out to prove that modern slavery doesn’t exist. Is this a clever marketing technique to generate sales on the back of a topical subject? There has been no slavery since Transatlantic slavery, as far as Davidson is concerned, partly for the very literal reason that we no longer have fortresses, dungeons, people manacled on slave ships and human beings transported as objects. Even at this literal level, I would argue that there are strong modern parallels with people being smuggled into countries in the back of lorries and container ships, packed like sardines and suffocated to death or if they’ve reached their destination alive, they have ended up enslaved, only to die further along the line like the Chinese cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay.

Martyr to Freedom. R. Gopakumar/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved. Martyr to Freedom. R. Gopakumar/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.Davidson’s main critique of modern day abolitionists like Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves or Andrew Forrest of Walk Free is threefold: that the term ’slave’ deprives those so named of being ‘free agents’ and reduces them to ‘victims’ which doesn’t recognise the complexity of their lives and their ’choices’; that the abolitionists present slavery as ‘exceptional’ and incompatible with the dominant order so they are in effect celebrating the status quo; and that it is very difficult to draw the line between a slave and a non-slave because there is no universal, neutral yardstick by which exploitation can be measured, therefore we have no reliable statistics because ‘you cannot measure what you cannot define’. Davidson goes on to tar all those active in the fight against slavery with the same brush. Yet there are anti-slavery activists like Anne Gallagher who have analysed the flaws in Walk Free’s statistics on openDemocracy 50.50 without concluding that slavery doesn’t exist.

There are a range of dire examples on offer from which Davidson excavates ‘agency’ to emphasise the fact that people have choices in all circumstances. The example that I gagged on relates to plantation slaves. An enslaved woman attempts to escape her slave master, when that attempt fails, she kills her three year old daughter to save her from the same destiny. Davidson tells us that represents a ‘choice’, the woman couldn’t be considered a victim because ‘as willing selves, slaves had to actively decide whether or not to comply with orders given by their legal owners’. How can we engage meaningfully with this kind of conceptual stretch? In recognising victimhood, we are not patronising ‘victims’ but holding up a mirror to the brutality of the system as I have argued before on 50:50.  It suits the supporters of neo-liberalism to argue that the system provides freedom of choice but Davidson is not one of them. One of the things we agree on is the brutality of capitalism. But, Davidson’s emphasis on agency lets the system off the hook, precisely what she accuses abolitionists of doing.

By extending the idea of agency to children as well because she argues that many of them voluntarily want to work in order to contribute to family incomes, Davidson finds herself among strange bedfellows. Should we not be questioning the system that reduces families to starvation so children ‘voluntarily’ go out to earn? Entire legal systems would have to be dismantled if children were conceptualised as free agents. Many young girls ‘happily’ agree to FGM because it is accompanied by celebratory ritual and social approval. Do we therefore support FGM?  It was exactly this kind of thinking that led to inertia on the part of police and social workers in Rotherham in the UK who failed to see the grooming of girls as child sexual abuse. What they saw was ‘child prostitutes’ choosing this lifestyle. 

As for Davidson’s charge of maintaining the status quo, activists have to be tactical. Most of those with whom I have campaigned side by side with, like Southall Black Sisters, would agree that the whole system needs to be overhauled. But you try going into a meeting with government officials to argue that you want their co-operation to overthrow capitalism or patriarchy! So you start with something particularly deplorable behind which the public and media feel able to throw their support (and on some issues you don’t even have that support) and perhaps get a positive change in legislation or extra funding. It is well-nigh impossible to get governments to fund a newly identified area of social need and injustice especially in times of austerity without hard evidence. Even when governments come round to your way of thinking, they will attempt to reduce the figures (a smaller problem requires less funding) so when the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner quotes a Home Office figure of 10-13,000 slaves in the UK in 2014, I will go with that. By arguing that modern slavery does not exist, Davidson is in danger of unravelling all the hard work done by activists to get to this point.

In any case, the charge of maintaining the status quo is one that could equally be brought against Davidson. For example, she is critical of the way in which immigration controls perpetuate slavery or, as she does not accept that slavery exists, the appalling conditions of the most ‘exploited’. I completely agree with an analysis that identifies immigration laws as a key contributory factor. As I demonstrated in my book Enslaved, an individual is powerless and vulnerable to the most unspeakable exploitation while her passport is in the hands of somebody else, be they an "employer", a "spouse", an "agent", a "trafficker" or indeed the government, as in the case of failed asylum seekers. So I argued that if we were serious about ending modern slavery in Britain we needed to campaign for open borders unpopular though it may be although possibly no more unpopular than attempts to end transatlantic slavery. The Independent reported that resistance from slaveholders was finally softened by a payout of £20m in 1833, a staggering 40 per cent of the UK treasury's annual budget, which equates to around £16.5bn in today’s terms. Open borders represents a huge assault on the status quo but it does not make much of an appearance in Davidson’s book apart from one little sentence tucked away on p159 which argues for the extension of citizenship rights to all those already here – a kind of ‘amnesty’ which is fine as far as it goes but hardly a longterm solution.

However, when I challenged Davidson on this score in our discussion on Thinking Allowed, Radio 4, she did come out in favour of open borders, a welcome announcement. Given her critique of immigration laws, it is surprising that the book does not welcome the one liberalisation of immigration controls that has taken place recently: the European Convention of Human Trafficking which allows ‘victims’ of trafficking a period of rest and reflection on benefits, the right to apply for leave to remain and to decide whether to testify against their traffickers. The government of course does its best to minimise the number of people who can access these rights by scrutinising closely whether they were in fact duped or coerced. If they had chosen lap dancing and were moved into prostitution, for example, were they really duped? Academics like Davidson who insist that most migrants are neither duped nor coerced provide an intellectual rationale for the government’s anti-immigrant agenda.

The tone of the book is sneering and dismissive of activists. I thought we had arrived at a point where academia respected activism because it provides much of the raw material on which their theorising is based. She criticises the ‘feel good’ factor, the sense of solidarity and collective identity of the new abolitionists. What is wrong with that? Most of us involved with political change are swimming against the current, we represent a minority opinion often portrayed as extreme by mainstream society. That can be quite a bruising experience. The solidarity of like-minded people is a welcome relief. The abolitionist movement is described as ‘the celebrification of human trafficking’ and mocked by reference to the celebrities associated with it who say they are ‘lovin’ it’ and by quoting people like David Arkless, co-founder of the Global Business Coalition against Human Trafficking, ‘When you get involved in something like this your employees will love it, the public will love it and your shareholders will love it’. We are told that Coca Cola and ExxonMobil are part of the coalition, that even faith groups and trade unions are involved in the fight. So what? They are all probably very hot on anti-racist policies which in itself does not diminish the campaign against racism.

Whilst definitions are important, Davidson defines slavery out of existence. First the meaning of slavery is hollowed out by looking at how loosely people use the word today, like the right-wing politicians in America who condemn the tyranny of taxation as a form of slavery. Although this method of argument, which crops up repeatedly in the book, is used in all seriousness, it sounds like parody. Is that how we dispute the existence of a phenomenon – by raiding language for all the colloquial uses of a term? Debt bondage in places like India or Pakistan then is no different from bank loans in the West especially when bailiffs use aggressive methods to recover loans.  Really?  In fact, to use the narrative of slavery to damn Africa or India is, according to Davidson, an Orientalist discourse. I completely disagree with this line of thinking as I have argued in a previous article for 50:50. Since debt is a continuum of lasting relations of dependency between people – at one end, many of us ‘owe’ our lives to doctors, friends or parents – Davidson asks how can we differentiate between empowered subjects and debt slaves? It’s really not that difficult. One of the young women, Natasha (a pseudonym) who featured in my book, was bought and sold at McDonalds for a sum of 2000€. When she thought she had earned enough from prostitution to pay back her pimp, she was told that her earnings did not cover the hyperinflated costs of maintaining her. She would never pay back her debt – surely an uncontroversial example of debt bondage.

Exact boundaries may be hard to agree upon in areas of social policy. In the case of welfare benefits, for example, there are always those who fall just outside the eligibility criteria who arguably also live in poverty. An activist would want to draw the boundary more generously whilst the government would want to rein it in, but to argue that because boundaries are not accurate, no one needs benefits, is analogous to what Davidson does with slavery. She rubbishes Kevin Bales’ perfectly acceptable definition of modern slavery, as involving the total control by one person over another who receives little or no pay for the purposes of economic exploitation, a relationship maintained with the threat of violence or actual violence, by saying that if this definition was to be used retrospectively during transatlantic times, it would increase the number of slaves exponentially.  

The most generous interpretation of this attempt to consign slavery to earlier times is to say that it reveals a fastidious academic concern with neat, irrefutable categories. However, this slips into a dangerous form of academic nitpicking which amounts to the denial of an appalling reality for thousands who are trafficked, sold and enslaved. By suggesting that the very idea of ‘modern slavery’ is inane and clichéd, and any activist concern with it is a tendency to ‘spout empty speculation and received ideas’ is to insult the testimonies of those who have survived.

To hear a discussion of this issue between Julia O’Connell Davidson and Rahila Gupta on Thinking Allowed, Radio 4, click here.


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