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Modern slavery, Brexit, migration, and development: connecting the dots

Regardless of how one feels about migrants, protecting them in the labour market will bring benefits to all workers.

'Refugees welcome' Matt Brown/flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Modern slavery has been gaining salience in British media and public awareness. This resonates with recent international trends, and renewed attention to the plight of those exposed to the harshest forms of exploitation deserves our support. But a narrow focus on ‘modern slavery’ steers the discussion away from broader systemic issues, which must be considered if we are to maximise the effectiveness of actions aimed at lowering national and global inequalities.

What happens if we consider the modern slavery campaign, Brexit, and migration and development policies all at the same time … and then connect the dots? It becomes apparent that national workers and (willing or unwilling) labour migrants are linked together into global hierarchies that generate a large supply of cheap and vulnerable labour. This pool of vulnerable workers is internally diverse and contains multiple groups struggling with different constraints. They all deserve attention. And yet official campaigns and policies obfuscate the picture by focusing on narrow issues with high media-shock potential and compartmentalising connected problems.      

Some migrants see their livelihoods as dependent upon their ability to remain and endure exploitative working conditions.

The official narrative that contrasts ‘innocent victims of slavery’ and ‘evil traffickers’, and targets the latter as the primary cause for slavery’s endurance, is misleadingly simplistic. Only a minority of the exploited workers identified through the modern slavery campaign were forced into the UK against their will. Increased security and policing aimed at protecting 'slaves on our streets' result in more thorough controls on migrants, some of whom are not compliant with the UK’s immigration laws but are in the country willingly.

These migrants may see their livelihoods and those of others who receive their support as dependent upon their ability to remain and endure exploitative working conditions. They may not be de facto enslaved initially, but are made increasingly vulnerable to the worst forms of exploitation when they are criminalised and denied support as migrants. Whatever one’s views of the UK’s immigration regulations, we should try to understand these migrants’ circumstances: the hardship they struggle with at home; why they would rather live abroad and face exploitation than remain where they are; and what can be done to help them. This, in turn, requires us to explore the interconnections of national and international labour hierarchies. 

Keeping migrants from migrating

Two recent fields of intense policy activity, Brexit and the 2015 Modern Slavery Bill (now Act), have major consequences for nationals and non-nationals working in the UK. Both policies give the government greater control over immigration – one of the main long-term objectives of the current political leadership. The Brexit negotiations are not over yet, but they will likely end with some sort of increased regulation for European citizens moving to and residing within the UK – a group which for the past several decades has largely enjoyed the same employment and welfare rights as British citizens. The neo-abolitionist movement, meanwhile, brings with it tighter controls on overseas voluntary immigration and will likely lead to increased repatriations (deportations). Both policies, in short, hamper the ability of both EU and overseas migrants to work in the UK.

But clamping down on migrants (irrespective of whether these are seen as desirable or undesirable) does nothing to tackle the demand side of migration in the UK and the problems that pushed people to migrate in the first place. These problems are complex and are growing: European countries, especially in southern Europe, are faced with extremely high rates of domestic unemployment as well as with pressures from overseas immigrants desperate to find means of survival – desperate enough to risk their lives in perilous journeys. The question, then, is what can be done to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable? Who should do what?

The limits of development assistance

One of the options is often phrased as ‘helping them at home’ – traditionally this has been the main purpose of official development assistance (ODA). But how effective has ODA been at achieving its targets? Simply stated, not very. The literature on ODA’s achievements and failures is extensive. For the purpose of the present discussion, let us limit ourselves to two central questions: what proportion of aid reaches its alleged beneficiaries, and how does planned development compare to remittances sent back by migrants?

It is unclear whether ODA outpaces remittances, or vice-versa, in terms of absolute quantities. Circumstances vary across different countries, and quantifying remittance flows is notoriously difficult. However studies have found remittances to be more effective at targeting intended recipients, since they are the fruit of negotiations between migrants and their families and networks back home. Furthermore, and in contrast to ODA, migrants’ remittances are not partially absorbed by international development bureaucracies, or returned to the ‘developers’ through tied aid. It is important to ask to what extent ODA develops the developers more than its intended beneficiaries, by creating more – and better paid – employment opportunities for elite nationals of rich (and, less so, poor) countries than for the unemployed in the global south.

It is important to ask to what extent ODA develops the developers more than its intended beneficiaries.

Another way in which the employment opportunities of people in the south are influenced by international development is through the latter’s impact on the recipient countries’ financial and social regulations. In the last two decades of the twentieth century the conditionality of development loans increased rather than decreased the precariousness of southern workers. A well-documented example is the implantation of liberalisation and structural adjustment policies in Africa, which resulted in privatisation and rises in unemployment in many African countries. The closure of underperforming public businesses in developing countries has resulted in a mass of unemployed workers who may at some point accept exploitative labour conditions, or force their relatives to accept them, in their own countries or as migrants abroad. Critiques of aid seriously question the North’s ability to help the poorest potential migrants in their own countries.

The benefits of helping them ‘here’ instead

A second potential way to support the most vulnerable would be to help them when they reach richer countries as migrants. But help isn’t what they get. This gives them little option upon arrival but to accede to business’ demand for cheap and exploitable workers. The most vulnerable migrants are also the most likely to lack the capacity to bargain with employers or intermediaries because they become indebted or can’t afford the costs involved in radically changing their lives. Some may be locked in forms of debt bondage, tied housing, or withheld wages (the deposit system); others may have no alternative but to accept conditions imposed by their hosts (often relatives) who are only marginally better off than themselves.

There is a demand for labour that is cheaper and less organised than national labour (though not necessarily ‘enslaved’). But a large supply of exploitable workers limits the capacity of the national working classes to resist exploitation and negotiate better working conditions. In some – but certainly not all – sectors, irregular migrant workers undercut the negotiating power of free national workers by accepting deals that national workers would reject. This yields xenophobia and racism against foreign workers who are inevitably perceived as competitors whose presence depresses wages and makes it harder to access social benefits.

Racist logics result in representations that blame the victim, depicting foreign and migrant workers as naturally inclined to accept unsafe, uncivilised, and immoral working conditions – a dangerous horde that threatens national security and the livelihoods of national wage workers. These logics translate into political support for anti-immigrant policies that caricature all migrants as corrupting agents who should be sent back home. Even if one does not care about the plight of immigrants – I, for one, believe that improving their conditions should be our moral and political priority – these logics result in a vicious circle.   

A combination of rising xenophobia and tightened immigration controls yields a hostile environment for the most vulnerable migrants. Some of these may actually be enslaved. Others, probably the majority, are exploited and marginalised, yet find their conditions preferable to what they can achieve in the places they left. Separately, the modern slavery campaign, Brexit, and the UK’s immigration and ODA policies fail to tackle the complex processes that produce multiple vulnerabilities that sustain global inequalities. These processes have consequences not only for those poorest and most vulnerable, but for everybody. The interconnectedness of national and non-national labour is the central issue that cuts across these entangled processes.

About the author

Benedetta Rossi is a Reader in African Studies in the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, School of History and Cultures, of the University of Birmingham. Her work focuses on slavery and emancipation in Africa. Her publications include books and articles on the linkages between emancipation from slavery, labor migration, and planned international development in the Sahara-Sahel. She currently holds a visiting fellowship at Re:Work, a research unit devoted to the study of global labor in Humboldt University, Berlin.


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