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Mapping the politics of national rankings in the movement against “modern slavery”

The Global Slavery Index uses questionable data and ignores global interdependence to frame modern slavery as an issue rooted in the Global South. It exculpates the Global North of its continuing role in extreme exploitation and perpetuates a politics of rescue.

Screenshot from the 2014 Global Slavery Index. Fair Use.

Africa is bleeding red.

We refer to the first image on the webpage of Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index (GSI) 2014: a map depicting the estimated prevalence of “modern slavery” in 167 countries. “Modern slavery” is understood by Walk Free to include trafficking, forced labour and forced marriage. At a glance, the map shows the Middle East and most of Asia in shades of red and orange, faring hardly better than the African continent. Lighter shades in Latin America seem to indicate progress in comparison. In turn, Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand tend towards pale yellow. Such an image suggests the Global North metaphorically shedding light onto the dark parts of the world where slavery still flourishes. The image troubles us. It is replete with colonial overtones, ones which have been carried into the modern project of development. Thus, rather than providing an exhaustive critique of the methodology behind the GSI, in the rest of this brief commentary, we explore some of the politics of the report and of its methodology.

Over the past decade and a half, the counter-trafficking and anti-slavery movements have rapidly grown (Brysk and Choi-Fitzpatrick 2012; see also Issue 3 of the Anti-Trafficking Review). Concerns around trafficking and slavery have also resulted in a number of new government policies and programs, NGO projects, and business initiatives seeking to address the problem. Walk Free is a relatively new NGO working on the issue, founded by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest and Nicola Forrest. One of Walk Free’s key activities is the GSI. Released in early November 2014, the second annual report estimates that 35.8 million people are trapped in modern slavery, a much higher figure than their 2013 estimate, and also far higher than the International Labour Organization’s 2012 estimate of 20.9 million people in forced labour.

Yet critiques about what is being done in the name of fighting trafficking and slavery have also grown in recent years. The counter-trafficking / anti-slavery movement is far from homogenous. There are examples on the ground in many places of work being done to challenge bondage, unfreedom and exploitation where the frame of fighting “slavery” or “trafficking” is used while the work nonetheless forms part of broader movements for justice. On the whole, however, the broader counter-trafficking / anti-slavery movement has a widely recognized problem, and that is the drive towards a politics of rescue. Sex workers and migrant workers are all too often seen as needing to be “rescued” – regardless of what these workers want, and even if their “rescue” leads to a worse economic situation or to encounters with potentially abusive officials. The raft of laws and programs instituted around slavery, trafficking and forced labor in recent years, mentioned above, can be counted as successes for the movement. Yet over the same period, anti-worker and anti-migrant laws and policies have also generally continued to gather pace, creating the vulnerabilities within which “victims” are created. Indeed, Bridget Anderson and others have argued that counter-trafficking initiatives have been used by national governments in the Global North to justify anti-migrant policies.

Where, then, does the GSI fit into this political landscape? The GSI creates rankings of countries based on the prevalence of modern slavery, the vulnerability of each country’s citizens to slavery, and government responses to modern slavery. There is already a ranking system in relation to the latter aspect, however. The US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report classifies countries’ efforts to combat trafficking (used synonymously with “modern slavery”) according to a scale from Tier 1 (the best), through Tier 2 and the Tier 2 watch list to Tier 3 (the worst). Why, then, create an alternative ranking system? Given that the US has been accused of allowing its diplomatic alliances and conflicts to influence its rankings, an alternative ranking by a non-governmental organization might be seen as more neutral and independent. Yet, Walk Free uses the TIP reports as a source of data for creating their indices. There are no drastic departures from the Tier rankings. Nine of ten countries deemed to be taking the most action have most recently been ranked Tier 1. Eight out of ten countries deemed to be taking the least action have most recently been ranked Tier 3. Rather than a competing perspective, the report reinforces the legitimacy of the TIP reports’ Tier rankings. Whatever the politics of Walk Free, they do not appear to be politics of opposition to the US government’s self-declared leadership on the issue.

In attempting to meet the challenge of measuring a “hidden problem,” the methodology itself includes some questionable assumptions. The estimated prevalence of modern slavery for most countries is calculated primarily on the pervasiveness in a set of countries deemed to be similar, which are thus used as “proxies.” This use of “proxy” countries creates the greatest doubt as to whether the resulting estimates should be treated as legitimate. The “hard data” from 19 surveys are also questionable in terms of what is actually being measured (as well as the fact that the institutionalized population, including prisoners, is not among the respondents). But, ironically, the least data is available for those countries characterized by the authors as “wealthy, democratic nations with stable governments.” The only “data point” we could trace for a Western European country was a UK Home Office statement that “in 2003 there were up to 4,000 women in the UK that had been trafficked for sexual exploitation.” (Further, the methodology behind this estimate is unclear.) Hence the rankings based on the shakiest data are for those countries which, overall, are declared to be doing the best job: with supposedly the lowest prevalence of modern slavery, citizens who face less vulnerability, and the best government responses.

It is no accident that “developed” countries are ranked favorably, with comparatively low “vulnerability” to modern slavery: indicators of “development” are used to create a composite variable which in turn is part of the calculation for the vulnerability index. Yet, development also seems to explain more than vulnerability. Nine out of ten governments “taking the most action” are OECD countries. No OECD countries are among the ten countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery, nor are any OECD governments among the ten seen to be “taking the least action.” In contrast, some Least Developed Countries appear on both of these lists.

What is the lesson to be learned from the fact that “developed” countries have less slavery among their citizens and take more action against slavery? Unfortunately, there is no radical call for redistribution of global wealth here. Instead, the ranking system implies that the blame should be placed squarely on the national governments of the less “developed” countries for the plight of their citizens (even, in most cases, when these citizens travel abroad). The map hides the interdependence of regions and countries in many domains, and the ways in which the “developed” and the “developing” world interact with and affect each other. The stigmatization of certain countries suggests that the problem at hand has only “national roots,” narrowing the debate towards “national solutions” in the form of development. “Developed” countries are presented largely as the model for the lower-ranked to aspire to – a model of wealth, stability, freedom from corruption and poor governance, along with protection and assistance for citizens.

Further, it is an aspiration which the “developed” countries are characterized as ready to assist with. The sources of their development, the ways in which development has been attained through histories of colonialism, imperialism, debt servicing and unequal exchange (the latter increasingly within global supply chains) are absent from the analysis. “There are very few countries,” the report claims, “with a history so intrinsically linked to slavery as Sudan.” Such a statement is not applied to other countries such as Haiti or the United States, for this might illuminate the problematic ways in which the Global North achieved its “development.”

In the map created by Walk Free, we see the politics of rescue projected onto the global scale. We see slavery framed as a problem of development, development as a problem of nation states, and development as something that the civilized world (i.e., the Global North) can bring to those who need it. The map suggests the fight against modern-day slavery may be used in part to recover the project of development – a project which has been threatened on many fronts of late, not least due to the financial crisis and the growing influence of Rising Power countries.

The report, then, may be seen as reflecting the “anti-politics” that characterizes a large part of the counter-trafficking / anti-slavery movement. For the issue of modern slavery is one that is inevitably posed as transcending politics. The strength of this discourse is that it is difficult for politicians and business to dismiss. But this strength is inextricably linked to the trouble with such a framing, which is that explanations and responses must necessarily also be framed as transcending politics. In the Global Slavery Index report, it is a notion of development stripped of its politics which is implied as the solution. In contrast, if the prevalence of “modern slavery” is taken to indicate that there may actually be high incidences of severe exploitation and abuse of workers (particularly migrants) who have limited bargaining power, then both the causes and the responses are necessarily political. We suggest a politics of development is the wrong path, and what is needed is to forge a politics of solidarity.

This piece was originally published on Society and Space open site, and has been reprinted with permission. It has been modified for oD style considerations.

About the authors

Dr. Siobhán McGrath is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Durham University in the UK. Her research on forced labour and degrading work has been published in a number of peer-reviewed academic journals

Dr. Fabiola Mieres is a research associate in the Department of Geography, Durham University.


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