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Walk Free: measuring global slavery, or masking global hypocrisy?

The Walk Free Foundation claims to fight ‘modern slavery’ by measuring its extent, but is its index not just an exercise in political hypocrisy?

AndyMelton/Flickr. CC (by).

Walk Free has just released its 2016 Global Slavery Index (GSI), announcing that there are 45.8 million slaves in the world today. The index purports to measure the number of people affected by ‘modern slavery’ country by country, and provides a quantitative ranking of 162 countries around the world according to the estimated prevalence in each (i.e., the estimated percentage of the national population enslaved at any given time).

As with previous rounds of the index, the countries with the highest prevalence are all in the developing world, (India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan), while those singled out for special commendation are all in the affluent, developed world (Luxembourg, Germany, the United States, and so on).

What exactly does the index measure? Walk Free says that ‘modern slavery’ goes by names including ‘trafficking’, ‘forced labour’, ‘forced and early marriage’, and ‘the worst forms of child labour’ (WFCL). But at base, it claims, the term refers to the condition of children, women and men who are trapped in situations of appalling abuse and exploitation from which they cannot walk away.

At first, this may sound uncontroversial – after all, many of us think of chains or leg irons when we hear the word ‘slavery’. But Walk Free doesn’t claim that slavery only exists where people are held in shackles. Rather, it extends the concept to include people threatened with violence when attempting to leave a given situation or tied by debt to a particular employer. When it comes to children, Walk Free includes even those who are paid for their labour and who are not necessarily subject to violence or debt, but who are nonetheless counted as ‘slaves’ simply because they are under the age of 18 when they perform their hazardous work.

Why stop at 45.8 million?

We do not doubt that the freedoms and rights of those labelled by Walk Free as ‘slaves’ are restricted by poverty, violence, wage theft, debt, racism, sexism, caste discrimination, and/or other forms of oppression. Our question, rather, is if Walk Free really wants to lead a liberation struggle on behalf of these people and is willing to expand the concept of ‘slavery’ in these ways, then why stop here?

Take ‘forced and early marriage’, which is described as a form of ‘modern slavery’ by Walk Free, and consider it against marriages that are not initiated by force and that involve women above the age of consent. We know that for millions of wives all over the world, consensual marriages also become violent and oppressive. Furthermore, because women often lack legal or financial access to divorce, and/or face stigma and penury as divorced women or single mothers, the many millions who suffer domestic violence are frequently unable to ‘walk away’ from their abusive husbands.


Alex/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd).

So why don’t these wives also appear as ‘slaves’ in Walk Free’s index? Equally, we might ask, if it is the absence of consent to a lifelong relationship rather than the actual presence of violence in that relationship that makes ‘forced and early marriage’ a proxy for slavery, then why isn’t the ‘forced and early motherhood’ experienced by women and girls in countries which restrict or deny access to abortion also ‘modern slavery’?  

Consider too the restraints on freedom implied by many common forms of indebtedness. Most migrant workers, for example, have no choice but to initially finance their labour migration by taking on debt because the costs associated with their mobility – including securing a job or getting the right documentation – are often prohibitively high. They have to borrow from friends, family members, moneylenders, or banks. But on arrival in countries like Australia and Britain, they’re tied to the employers that ‘sponsor’ them by immigration regimes that deport them if they ‘walk away’. And they are deterred from just ‘walking away’ by the knowledge that doing so will prevent them from paying back their debts to relatives or moneylenders back home.

Do they too not merit our concern? Why restrict the term ‘slavery’ only to those whose debt bonds them to an employer who is also a creditor? And why focus our moral contempt on the bad sponsor exploiting dependency, instead of on the immigration system which forces migrant workers into that dependency by denying them the right to move freely within the labour market?

Why focus our moral contempt on the bad sponsor exploiting dependency, instead of on the immigration system which forces migrant workers into that dependency by denying them the right to move freely within the labour market?

Let’s also remember the many millions of migrants deprived of their liberty through immigration detention around the world, often without time limit. In Australia, the US, and Britain, many immigration detention facilities are run for profit by private companies, and the labour of detainees, who are paid less than the minimum wage, helps to make the business of warehousing their bodies ever more profitable. Are they too not ‘modern slaves’? What of the predominantly Black and Latino populations held captive in the US prison-industrial complex, with its strong ties back to transatlantic chattel slavery? Are they slaves of the state? And if so, why don’t they feature in the GSI?

Bringing these people back into the orbit of our concern makes a mockery of awarding Australia or the US high positions on the list of countries taking most action against ‘modern slavery’. The Australian government’s own figures show that it forcibly and illegally detains almost 1,500 people on the islands of Manus and Nauru. And unlike many of those identified by Walk Free as ‘modern slaves’, these captives do commonly liken their situation to slavery, and some have even begged the Australian state to kill them if it refuses to allow them to live.

Certainly the many hundreds of thousands of migrants trapped in appalling conditions in makeshift camps at European borders or held at the Lesbos refugee holding camp are not free to simply ‘walk away’. And, while we’re at it, if we want to demand an end to ‘human trafficking’ because it involves moving people against their will for the purposes of material gain, then aren’t the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers forcibly transported by the EU to Turkey, or those rounded up, kept in shackles, and held incommunicado by the Turkish authorities in exchange for payment and the promise of political favours by the EU, not also ‘victims of trafficking’?

An index of global hypocrisy?

It’s not possible to count what you cannot define, and those who produce the GSI have not managed to come up with a definition of ‘slavery’ that clearly and unambiguously allows them to distinguish between ‘slave’ and non-slave in the contemporary world. Instead, they’ve chosen to apply the label ‘slave’ in a very selective and narrow fashion, highlighting only those forms of unfreedom that they view as intolerable and ignoring many others that they either do not see, or do not find morally objectionable. This, then, is not an index of global slavery, but rather of global hypocrisy.

This, then, is not an index of global slavery, but rather of global hypocrisy.

But the problems with the GSI go far beyond the fact that it is partial and selective (in specifically white, liberal, bourgeois ways). It also invites a particularly dangerous kind of policy-making. Since slavery is nowhere legally sanctioned, most governments’ first response to the news that slavery is a vast and growing problem is to address it as a criminal justice issue. The solutions they come up with are therefore typically draconian – tighter policing, tougher sentencing, harsher immigration controls, and the further militarisation of borders. Yet can such measures ever really help those at the sharp end of inequalities and systems of domination in the contemporary world? How will they help ensure that battered wives or poor workers stuck on tied visas can choose to walk away from those who exploit and abuse them? How will they bring freedom to the populations warehoused in prisons and detention centres, or held against their will in occupied territories or border camps?

Likewise, it’s unclear how the poor and indebted in developing countries will be assisted by the policies that rich countries have begun to enact – in part in response to pressure from Walk Free and the GSI – to prevent the importing of products made using ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’. These laws certainly help to protect domestic industries from the competition they’d face from poorer countries exporting cheaper goods. But they do nothing to address the underlying global political and economic inequalities that, in different ways, shape the very phenomena grouped under the umbrella of ‘modern slavery’.

The GSI naturalises the structural injustices that leave vast swathes of the world’s population unable to simply walk away from appalling situations of violence, abuse, and exploitation. No wonder global elites and their political representatives are so happy to endorse it.

About the authors

Julia O’Connell Davidson is a professor in social research at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. She has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life, which she has explored through studies of employment relations in the privatized utilities, as well as through research on prostitution and on sex tourism. Julia is most recently the author of Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedomnow out from Palgrave (2015). She has published extensively on prostitution, ‘trafficking’, and ‘modern slavery’, and is also the author of Prostitution, Power and Freedom (1998, Polity) and Children in the Global Sex Trade (2005, Polity).

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.


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