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Introducing: Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

This week’s special feature was edited by Neil Howard, Genevieve LeBaron and Cameron Thibos from openDemocracy’s new editorial partnership, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

‘Modern slavery’, ‘human trafficking’, and ‘forced labour’ are all issues of major political and media concern. Barely a day now passes without some sensational story. Governments everywhere are passing legislation, civil society interest is rocketing, and ever more consumers are asking questions about how their products are made.

Yet for all this attention, how much is actually known about these phenomena? We’ve no shortage of anecdotal stories, but reliable information is in seriously short supply. Mainstream media is quick to present ‘modern slaves’ as living under exceptional circumstances, but it’s often impossible to distinguish their lives from those of people living under ‘ordinary’ capitalist exploitation. Why is this? And why is it that ‘protection’ policies governments put in place so frequently do more harm than good?

These are the kinds of questions that we’ll be exploring over the coming week, and that Beyond Trafficking and Slavery will be answering over the coming year. Let us introduce you to our partners and authors:

We begin, on Monday, with Dina Haynes asking why it is that trafficking and slavery have become such contemporary causes celebres? Media personalities, politicians, and even sports stars line up to shout ‘Stop The Traffic’ or ‘End Slavery’. One of the reasons why they’re so easily able to do so, according to Joel Quirk and Anne Bunting, is that contemporary abolitionism can be all things to all people. It ‘rarely poses a direct threat to major political and economic interests’ and thus is easy to promote without rocking the boat.

Such sentiments are echoed on Tuesday, in articles by Julia O’Connell Davidson, Genevieve LeBaron and Neil Howard. Drawing on The Guardian’s recent splash about slavery in Thai fisheries, Neil reminds us that exploitation is inherent within the structures of global capitalism. For this reason policy responses centred on encouraging better business behaviour will never be anything other than anaemic. Genevieve takes this argument further, examining the deficiencies of private supply-chain governance initiatives, while Julia prompts us to ask deeper questions about the very meaning of freedom, coercion and consent under contemporary conditions of inequality.

On Wednesday, Samuel OkyereRon Weitzerand Prabha Kotiswaran shed light on the immense deficiencies underpinning mainstream abolitionist thinking. Ron takes apart efforts to ‘measure’ contemporary slavery, revealing how weak core data are and how problematic are its assumptions. Sam shows how these assumptions often equate ‘culture’ with exploitation in ways that mirror colonial thinking and entrench existing root causes. Prabha details the history of the Palermo Protocol as a cautionary tale, and advises us to limit our expectations when we seek to address trafficking through legal means.

On Thursday, we have two Q&A interviews with respected figures central to debates around trafficking and slavery. Bridget Anderson is an Oxford Professor and a highly authoritative voice on matters of mobility, labour exploitation and trafficking. She has long called for an opening of borders and a more serious, political response to such extreme exploitation. Helga Konrad, by contrast, was both an Austrian Government Minister and former Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). She has a unique insider’s perspective on what policy-makers think and do – and here she is clear in her critique of them.

Finally, on Friday we look at history and its implications. Karen Bravo examines parallels between nineteenth century abolitionism and its latter-day equivalent, while. Tryon Woods provocatively asks whether some of those parallels might make anti-trafficking better understood as ‘anti-blackness’.

Once the week is out, you’ll find us on our dedicated section, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. From now until January, we’ll have a steady stream of articles, interviews and field reports from all over the world. From January onwards each month will focus on a specific theme, each of which will go to the very heart of contemporary critical thinking about exploitation, domination, its causes and its consequences. We look forward to seeing you over the coming year.


About the authors

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery, and a UK ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow. You can follow her on twitter @glebaron

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

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