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Why we need to move Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Introducing a new openDemocracy partnership challenging both the empty sensationalism of mainstream media accounts of exploitation and domination, and the hollow, technocratic policy responses promoted by businesses and politicians.

Over the past fifteen years, forced labour, trafficking, and slavery have become issues of major political and media concern. Governments worldwide have passed a wave of ‘anti-slavery’ and ‘anti-trafficking’ legislation, championed as a solution to the constant stream of media reports documenting horrific abuse and serious exploitation. So why is it that most sources continue to show a rise in severe exploitation in a range of contexts, despite the laudable aims and billions of dollars channelled into these initiatives?

There’s actually very little evidence to show that existing anti-slavery initiatives are effective in ensuring prevention or in providing protection to victims. In addition, there are serious questions about the marginal difference between ‘slaves’, ‘victims of trafficking’, and ordinary people who are just plain exploited within the capitalist system and as a result of myriad social hierarchies. What are these policies doing if they’re not safeguarding the very people they’re supposedly designed to protect.

This site aspires to be an alternative to the many 'Modern-Day Slavery Hubs' dotted across conventional media. While these outlets make an important contribution, they often feature stories that are sensationalist, de-politicised, and based on questionable research. We are here to go beyond such simplicity. Our editors will marshal the best of contemporary scholarship to provide informed, nuanced, and focused analysis. They’ll engage practitioners and policy-makers about life inside the policy system, and link failings to wider questions about the nature of the societies in which we live.

The site contains several sections. In addition to a regular stream of articles, we have a blog for short pieces from a wide range of voices – for which we invite contributions – as well as a pedagogical section. The latter contains clear, concise introductions to all the major issues, and recommends both essential and radical texts for further reading. As we are academics at heart who are always looking for good teaching materials, we’ll also make the articles published on this site available as e-books for use in the classroom later in the year.

Over the next 12 months you’ll see dozens of pieces from academics and practitioners on a range of debates. Starting in January, each month will focus on a distinct theme. We’ll begin by examining the common misconceptions of slavery, trafficking, and forced labour as promoted by politicians and across the mainstream media. We’ll follow this by looking at how political structures, economic systems, and legal frameworks sustain and entrench human vulnerability in a way that allows such exploitation and domination to flourish in plain sight.

We’ll take apart historical legacies to open up questions of reparation, parallels between then and now, and the similarities and differences between practices, places and policies. This will involve asking how migration and mobility regimes limit mobility and distinguish who can and cannot be legally exploited. Similarly important will be questioning dominant ideas about ‘race’, ‘caste’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘belonging’. The history of the Atlantic Slave Trade shows that exploitation has always been predicated on conceptions of hierarchy – whatever the axis upon which it turns – and our contributors will examine how and why that remains the case today. Other fault lines include gender and generation – meaning men, women, adults and children – and our writers will look at feminized forms of forced labour, the absence of men from discourses around trafficking, and the problems pertaining to the ‘child labour’ legislation that criminalizes adolescent livelihood strategies.

We’ll finish this first year by turning our attention to the future. Although the site is designed to provoke reflection, it is also explicitly political. One of its major goals is to reflect on solutions around which we can mobilise. Ranging from the utopian to the eminently practical, we’ll close the year with serious, political and innovative ideas about what we can do and how.

We look forward to seeing you over the coming 12 months!

Beyond SlaveryThis article is from the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.

About the authors

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the 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 Politics at the University of Sheffield and Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Fellow at Yale University. Her research focuses on the global growth and governance of forced labour in retail supply chains and the politics of corporate social responsibility. Read more of her writing on her website and follow her on twitter @GLeBaron.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and Mediterranean Journeys in Hope. 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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