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Shadows of slavery part four: global capitalism and modern slavery

This fourth section of our collection Shadows of Slavery takes a step back from empirical case studies to explore neoliberal capitalism's reliance on an irregular, migratory workforce as a whole. 

Sugar cane harvest. Steven Baird/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

‘Modern slavery’ has become a catch-all and media attractive category that conflates together human trafficking, debt bondage, sex trafficking, and forced marriage, as well as various types of bounded labour that are perceived as comparable to slave systems of the past. This concept has become the core of a ‘new abolitionist’ agenda that is informing the activities and policies of governments, international agencies, and NGOs all over the world.

For its critics, the modern slavery framework falls far short of addressing the structural causes that produce labour exploitation and unfreedom under global neoliberal capitalism. Activists and international organisations fighting against so-called ‘modern slavery’ generally limit their focus to ‘bad’ exploiters and exploited ‘victims’. These are considered exceptions in an allegedly ‘free’ capitalistic labour market, and it is to this market that ‘rescued victims’ should be returned in order to be ‘freed’. They tend to frame labour exploitation as a simple lack of law enforcement or as a juridical matter, ignoring its wider economic and political roots.

The ‘new abolitionist’ agenda pays very little attention to the fact that current forms of labour exploitation represent a constitutive part of a neoliberal capitalistic order. It is an order characterised by increasingly precarious labour conditions; reduced welfare, public services, and labour rights; the privatisation of public resources; spiralling debt; shrinking and tamed labour unions; and the legal and political marginalisation of large sectors of the (migrant and non-migrant) workforce. All these aspects are crucial to understanding how labour exploitation is structured in the neoliberal order that connects – and divides – the Global North and South.

This final part of Shadows of slavery: refractions of the past, challenges of the present brings together selection of pieces from Beyond Trafficking and Slavery that help problematise the concept of ‘modern slavery’ and the relationship between global capitalism and current forms of exploitation and unfreedom. Michael Dottridge focuses on the many shortcomings of the concept of ‘modern slavery’, both when it is used as a heuristic tool as well as for the political and social effects it triggers in the current international debate.

Moving along this line and with a bottom up approach, the following three articles present case studies that point out the ambiguities of framing current forms of harsh exploitation under the label of ‘modern slavery’. Antonio De Lauri analyses debt traps among kiln workers in Pakistani Punjab, showing how “we need to go beyond this simplistic ‘victim paradigm’ in order to understand the social nature of bondage as well as to situate that bondage within both local and global systems of domination and dependence”.

James Esson explores the case of football academies in Ghana recently accused of promoting child trafficking. He invites us to move away from the modern slavery paradigm, focusing instead on the “broader structural conditions that funnel youth into the football industry” as a venue of upward social mobility and successful migration. Gloria Carlini, meanwhile, discusses how the voices of Ghanaian migrants working in the tomato fields of South Italy should be considered more seriously before subsuming them under the category of ‘new slaves’, since many of them distance themselves from this definition. The bottom up/ethnographic approach of these contributions lights up ambiguities and contradictions that are generally obscured by the generalist, salvific, and often paternalistic framework of the ‘new abolitionist’ agenda.  

The last three articles consider labour exploitation in the neoliberal world from a wider perspective, able to link particular cases to structural forces of a global scale. Nicola Phillips argues that those who are the most exploited are not always the poorest ones. While income certainly play a crucial role in these dynamics, other factors – e.g. education, migrants and gender rights, and the precarious and erratic nature of work – are relevant as well. Benjamin Selwyn explores how global supply chains are becoming tools of labour exploitation for international firms and global capital, and argues that several forms of activism and campaigns “understand harsh labour as a consequence of corporate malpractice, rather than as a structural feature of the global economy”.

Susan Ferguson and David McNally’s article closes this fourth section, reminding us how the global migrant workforce is vital to capitalist expansion and that capitalism has always been perpetuated through legal and illegal regimes of migrancy and forced labour. As they argue:

“[…] the current era makes it clear that unfree labour is not a relic of the past. Indeed, capital is not only increasingly reliant on migration, but specifically on the transnational flow of people who are deprived of full citizenship, people who to varying degrees comprise an unfree global workforce”.

In this perspective, the modern slavery framework – maybe unconsciously, maybe not – has often the ambiguous consequence of obscuring, rather than illuminating, processes of labour exploitation in the current era. Their causes are in the capital’s constant need of cheap workforce and the inability – or unwillingness – of governments to translate the abstractness of labour rights into an effective system of social justice and redistribution. The same old history – we could say – with some new developments.

About the authors

Alice Bellagamba is Professor of Political Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Milano Bicocca. She holds the ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). She carried out long-term fieldwork in The Gambia and Southern Senegal.

Marco Gardini is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Milan Bicocca. His research investigates the legacies of slavery on the highlands of Madagascar and explores continuities and discontinuities in forms of labour exploitation.

Laura Menin is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Milano Bicocca. She has conducted research in Morocco since 2008, working on migration, love and intimacy, political violence during ‘the years of lead’, and ‘race’ and racism.


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