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The rhetoric and reality of ‘ending slavery in our lifetime’

‘Modern-day abolitionists’ frame their activities as part of a shared global struggle, but there is no single anti-slavery or anti-trafficking movement.

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Recent efforts to combat ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery’ have frequently been characterized as a cause associated with ‘modern-day abolitionists’, who regard themselves as the successors of historical anti-slavery activists in the United States and United Kingdom. According to these self-proclaimed abolitionists, such as David Batstone and Not For Sale, their primary goal is to ‘end slavery in our lifetime'. While this is undoubtedly a compelling slogan, we need to look beneath the rhetoric and ask what this actually looks like in reality.

For historical anti-slavery activists, the cause of ending slavery involved targeting a clearly defined population whose status as slaves was heavily reliant on the government for sanction and support. For ‘modern-day abolitionists’, the cause of ‘ending slavery’ now extends to a tremendous variety of practices and problems. These include wartime captivity in Nigeria, bonded labour in Pakistan, abuses on fishing boats in Thailand, ‘slave chocolate’ in Cote D'Ivoire, forced labour in cotton production in Uzbekistan, and the abuse of migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom. ‘Modern-day abolitionists’ regard these diverse problems as different aspects of a cohesive and singular global cause: combating trafficking and modern slavery. Should these very different problems and practices be lumped together in this way?

To help answer this question, we need to reflect upon the many different issues which been loosely aggregated under the global banner of ending slavery and trafficking over the last two decades. While no list can ever be definitive, the goal of ‘ending slavery in our lifetime’ is most commonly understood in terms that require action in relation to the following:

• Sex work and exploitation
• Migration and exploitation
• Bonded labour and exploitation
• Child labour and exploitation
• Domestic labour and exploitation
• Global supply chains and exploitation
• Hereditary bondage and descent-based discrimination
• Wartime captivity and wartime abuses
• Forced and early marriage
• Forced labour for the state

In addition, it is important to briefly mention the following related themes, despite the fact that they haven’t really featured prominently in anti-slavery and anti-trafficking circles:

• Prison labour and patterns of incarceration
• Repairing the history and legacies of historical slave systems

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This is a long and diverse list. There are a number of points of overlap and intersection between different themes, as well as in relation to much larger social challenges such as sexism and patriarchy. Things quickly get even more complicated, however, since combating trafficking and slavery is commonly understood to involve a specific subcategory of ‘slaves’ found amongst much larger populations. Not everyone who works within a global supply chain can be classified as enslaved, trafficked or subject to forced labour. Much the same logic applies to migrants, sex workers, prisoners, domestics, and other populations. Throwing together all of these different themes is a recipe for confusion, rather than clarity.

Accordingly, ‘ending slavery’ not only requires us to firmly distinguish between ‘slave’ and ‘non-slave’ across many different practices and population groups, but also to formulate interventions that specifically target this small subcategory of affected persons. This overall picture is in turn further complicated by the ways in which people move in and out of different types of situations, so there will always be new cases.

It is at this juncture that political rhetoric inevitably gives away to political reality. ‘Modern-day abolitionists’ can’t possibly take simultaneous action to combat abuses against an amorphous subcategory of ‘slaves’ across all of these different practices and population groups. When push comes to shove, activists and institutions only rarely concern themselves with the overall whole, but instead direct their energies in relation to specific issues and locations.

While the popular rhetoric of shared global struggle is undoubtedly appealing, the reality is that it ultimately doesn’t mean very much in practice. Ending slavery is not a single cause, but instead involves many different causes that have been uncomfortably lumped together. There is frequently relatively little to directly connect interventions in one part of the globe to parallel interventions taking place in other parts of the world.

Brazilian activists seeking to end extreme exploitation in the agricultural sector have little to do with their counterparts seeking to combat the legacies of historical slave systems in Mali or Niger. Much the same can be said about activists concerned with state-sponsored forced labour in North Korea relative to bonded labour in Pakistan. Activists in the United States concerned with ‘domestic minor sex trafficking’ rarely look beyond their own borders, or even beyond sex work, when it comes to making substantive political and policy interventions. There are sometimes broad similarities in the types of practices that occur in these otherwise very different contexts, but a great deal of a creative aggregation and extrapolation is required in order to translate these generalities into the language of a common and cohesive global cause.

Modern-day abolitionists often attempt to solve this problem by weaving together rhetorical appeals that superficially link numerous contexts and constituencies together. This sometimes means re-badging individuals concerned with specific themes, such as migration or child rights, as ‘anti-slavery activists’ to invent new ‘modern-day abolitionists’. While there may well be overlaps between causes, this rhetorical co-optation nonetheless has the effect of smoothing over differences in agenda, philosophy and approach. In other cases, activists concerned with one theme—such as sex work and exploitation—attempt to recast their activities as contributing to the larger cause of ending slavery and trafficking, often by simply adding the buzzword ‘labour trafficking’ into their rhetorical vocabularies.

Over the last year, anti-trafficking activists have made a series of appeals for action in Nigeria, Syria and Iraq, and thereby established rhetorical linkages between wartime captivity and sex work and exploitation. In the vast majority cases, activists and organizations making these rhetorical appeals have not followed up with any substantive inventions. Activists and institutions may well be rhetorically committed to combating a huge number of problems, but this rhetoric conceals a political and spatial landscape where substantive inventions remain concentrated upon specific themes and locations.

Several conclusions follow from this overall line of argument. Firstly, and most obviously, it is essential not to confuse political rhetoric with political realities. However much people proclaim otherwise, there is not one global anti-trafficking or anti-slavery movement. There are instead many different movements and institutions with different agendas and interests. It should also be apparent, moreover, that these political agendas don’t always point in the same direction.

Instead of lumping together diverse issues, we instead need to disaggregate the numerous causes and agendas that now uneasily co-exist under the banner of ‘ending slavery’. This means focusing upon more specific themes, and engaging in more narrowly focused political debates to address specific problems, such as the vulnerabilities associated with migration. Each of the themes identified above can be usefully understood as autonomous spheres of activism and analysis, rather than as subcategories within the increasingly incoherent and overloaded rhetoric of ‘ending slavery’. There is undoubtedly overlap between some of these themes, but these points of intersection should be substantive and not simply rhetorical.

Finally, we also need to reflect upon whether or not the categories of ‘slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’ ultimately offer the most effective starting point for approaching these diverse themes. As we have seen, ‘ending slavery’ frequently means attempting to target specific subcategories of ‘exceptional’ cases that are found amongst much larger population groups. Targeting these exceptional cases is not only very difficult in practical terms, it also tends to create an informal separation between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ cases.

Instead of concentrating our energies upon a small subcategory within a larger population, perhaps it would be better to make the entire population the chief object of activism and analysis. While different themes require case-specific responses, this broadly means working to improve the rights and protections afforded to all migrants, sex workers, prisoners, domestics, supply chain workers, and other vulnerable populations. Instead of privileging individual cases, we need to be thinking in terms of collective transformation.

About the author

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses upon slavery and abolition, human mobility and human rights, repairing historical wrongs, and the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Joel is currently a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur. Your can follow him on twitter at @joelquirk.


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