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The dangerous appeal of the modern slavery paradigm

Endorsing the modern slavery bill, even by seeking to include additional protections within it, supports rather than challenges the use of criminal justice frameworks to address ‘modern slavery.’ 

How can we explain the appeal of the campaign to end modern slavery? At the rhetorical and emotional level it is self-evident. Slavery conjures up images of cruelty and horrific violations of human rights. The term ‘modern slavery’ resonates with older forms of slavery such as chattel slavery in the United States, which was depicted so vividly in the celebrated 2013 movie Twelve Years a Slave. It also echoes with the campaigns against the ‘white slave trade’, the term used to describe forced prostitution at the turn of the 20th century in the United States, where the White-Slave Traffic Act was passed in 1910. This act, better known as the Mann Act, was the original anti-trafficking law since it made it a crime to transport any woman or girl in interstate commerce or foreign commerce for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery. Thus, modern slavery also evokes images of women and children who are victims of sexual exploitation.

The appeal of the term modern slavery is precisely its over-determination; it encompasses a broad range of exploitive practices from traditional understandings of slavery and forced labour to human trafficking and prostitution. As such, it is a cause around which disparate groups, individuals, and states can mobilise; Anti-Slavery International, Liberty, Walk Free, the Pope, the UK Coalition Government, and the Obama administration all support the eradication of modern slavery. No one is ‘for’ modern slavery.

Moreover, the goal of many groups is to stretch the meaning of modern slavery to include an even broader range of exploitative practices, especially those where employment and migration intersect. Increasingly, labour exploitation is a focus for anti-slavery advocates, fueled in part by the International Labour Organization’s work to publicise the extent of forced labour. The aim is also to expand the arsenal for combatting modern slavery to include criminal law, human rights, labour standards and business regulation approaches.

In light of the growing consensus around the modern slavery paradigm, it is crucial to raise a caution about the downside of this approach, which is most visible in the current debate over the Modern Slavery Bill. Introduced in the UK House of Parliament last year, the Bill is nearing the final stages to become law. It defines modern slavery to encompass slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour. The emphasis is on ‘traffickers and slave drivers’ who coerce, deceive and force individuals against their will into a life of abuse, servitude and inhumane treatment. An Anti-Slavery Commissioner has been appointed, and the strategy for combatting modern slavery builds upon the government’s approach to organised crime and counter terrorism. The government’s Modern Slavery Strategy, which it introduced to accompany its new legislation, makes it clear that the focus is primarily, although not exclusively, on people who are trafficked across borders.

Instead of objecting to an approach to combatting modern slavery that is deeply embedded in a criminal law and border control framework, critics of the government’s bill have sought to graft measures that would address the problem of tied-visas for migrant domestic workers and supply chains on to it. Thus, they hope to expand both the meaning of modern slavery and the ways of addressing it. The problem with this strategy is that it reinforces, rather than challenges, an approach that emphasises the criminal law and border controls at the expense of labour standards and business regulation. The human rights of exploited workers are brought under the gravitational sway of an agenda that strengthens the government’s powers to control and punish at the same time as it closes borders.

As the Modern Slavery Bill has gone through the legislative process, a concerted effort has been mounted to persuade the Coalition government to reintroduce the right of domestic workers who enter the UK on an Overseas Domestic Workers Visa—which permits them to reside within the UK for six months while working within the private household of a non-British resident admitted under another visa category or a returning UK expatriate—to change employers. The government revoked this right from migrant domestic workers in April 2012. Advocacy groups such as Kalayaan, supported by the Labour Party and the majority of members of the House of Lords, have argued—on this website on March 16 and March 24, as well as elsewhere—that the right to change employers be reinstated because the visa tying domestic workers to their employer creates conditions that are ripe for modern slavery to occur.

However, the UK government has been adamant in its refusal to allow migrant domestic workers to change employers. Its only concession, added on 17 March 2015, is to grant a migrant domestic worker who has been the victim of modern slavery six months’ leave to stay and work in the UK. Moreover, in announcing this concession, the minister responsible for modern slavery and organised Crime, Karen Bradley, spurned the suggestion made by Member of the Opposition that the UK government ratify the ILO convention on the rights of domestic workers. The minister’s reply perfectly captures the government’s approach to labour exploitation:

It is important to strike the right balance between protecting vulnerable workers and ensuring that aspects of employment law which can carry criminal sanction are not extended to private households. Ratifying the convention would require the imposition of unnecessarily onerous obligations on, for example, people employing home helps or personal carers, and would be neither practical nor proportionate.

Given that the government is quite willing to use criminal law to combat ‘slave drivers’ who employ domestic workers in conditions of domestic servitude within their homes, it appears that what it is opposed to is strengthening employment law and employment rights for the growing legions of workers whose place of work is someone else’s home.  

The government’s Modern Slavery Strategy also pulls other regulatory approaches into the criminal law orbit. In April 2014, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), which regulates and investigates labour exploitation in a limited range of sectors, was moved from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills to the Home Office. This change shifted the GLA’s orientation from enforcing labour standards to tackling irregular migration and combatting organised crime.  In that year the number of investigations and prosecutions under the GLA fell dramatically. The only gesture in the Modern Slavery Bill towards an approach to tackling business practices that cultivate labour exploitation is the imposition of annual duty of disclosure on businesses over the steps they have taken to ensure their supply chains are slavery free. The government prefers light touch regulation that takes the form of providing information that will enable customers, campaigners and shareholders to hold big businesses to account instead of imposing licensing requirements or enforcing labour legislation.

The problem with the modern slavery paradigm is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge it from the technologies of legal governance, criminal law and border controls, that are mobilised in its cause. These technologies tend to target marginal players rather than tackle the social processes that normalise exploitation.


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