Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Are we better off on the inside? Modern slavery and human trafficking as platforms for political mobilisation

Do the practical and political benefits of taking up the cause of ending modern slavery and human trafficking outweigh the costs and complications which arise along the way?

Joel Quirk
15 November 2020, 12.11am
Artwork by Carys Boughton.
All rights reserved.

This piece begins with an election. Not the election you’re probably thinking of, but one which took place sufficiently long ago for its initial notoriety to have faded with time. We need to go all the way back to 2001, when the then Australian prime minister, John Howard, unexpectedly won re-election on the back of a campaign primarily based on the demonisation of asylum seekers. Howard infamously declared that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” He also used military force to prevent a Norwegian vessel that had saved the lives of 438 asylum seekers from entering Australian waters. These asylum seekers were predominantly from Afghanistan. They were fleeing a repressive Taliban regime against which Australia was soon to fight a war at the side of the United States, yet relatively few Australians were sympathetic to their plight. Two months later, sensational claims that asylum seekers on another sinking vessel had thrown their children overboard were front page news. They were later revealed to be false.

Howard’s xenophobic tactics continue to define Australian politics to this day. In 2001, he introduced policies which saw asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat detained in hugely expensive and extremely abusive offshore detention centres. These have been consistently described as “a living hell”, “a human rights catastrophe”, and “unlawful”, yet they still command broad support within Australia. Efforts were made to roll back Howard’s ‘Pacific solution’ when a centre-left government led by Kevin Rudd finally took power in 2007, but relentless right-wing attacks accusing his party of being ‘soft’ on migration proved to be a huge liability. Offshore detention would be re-established under a left-wing government, and the vast majority of Australian politicians have now spent most of the twenty-first century seeing who can yell ‘stop the boats’ the loudest. Howard’s approach to immigration continues to be cited as a model which is worthy of emulation by right-wing voices in many countries.

Many governments throughout the globe have poor track records when it comes to migration. They have little sympathy for people seeking refuge, no matter the circumstances from which they are trying to escape, and they pride themselves on their ‘toughness’ when it comes to turning away requests for help. At the same time, however, governments such as Australia’s have also proclaimed their sympathy and support for another vulnerable group: victims of human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’. In 2018, the Australian government introduced new anti-slavery legislation, declaring its intention to “harness the power of big business to help combat modern slavery” while also continuing to work with “our tireless civil society partners”. This legislation has been widely celebrated. The national manager of the Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery even declared that “it’s not quite Wilberforce ending slavery but it’s up there”.

Numerous governments have congratulated themselves and their peers for passing similar legislation in recent times. The Canadian government is currently considering its own Modern Slavery Act, which is closely modelled upon the Australian and British versions, and a similarly warm reception can be expected. In stark contrast to the issue of migrant rights, these official efforts against trafficking and slavery draw support from across the political and ideological spectrum and have been endorsed by both corporate and civil society voices. While the Australian government has signed the Palermo trafficking protocol, it was one of a number of states which strongly objected to the Global Compact on Migration, despite its non-binding character.

The tactical appeal of human trafficking and modern slavery

The very different political profiles of the two main issues considered above help to bring a series of strategic and tactical considerations into focus. Over the last three decades, governments, corporations, and many other institutions have publicly championed efforts to combat trafficking and modern slavery. These efforts are said to be motivated by humanitarian concerns for the most vulnerable and exploited, yet this concern rarely extends to other forms of vulnerability.

As we have already seen, it is really not a good time to be a migrant. Border walls have been built in huge numbers (from 15 in 1989 to 77 in 2018). Xenophobia has flourished. Budgets to prevent migration are measured in billions. Moreover, this widespread hostility towards migrants frequently intersects with another major global trend: the erosion of rights and protections for precarious workers thanks to outsourcing, subcontracting, and deregulation. In recent decades, campaigners focusing upon migrant and worker rights have lost countless political battles. And, on the rare occasions when they manage to hold or take ground, their efforts are subject to entrenched opposition.

The appeal of anti-trafficking and modern slavery campaigns needs to be understood within this larger context. The political obstacles associated with migration and work have led at least some campaigners to try to identify more promising platforms of mobilisation, and in the course of their search they have gravitated towards trafficking and slavery, which have a quite different political profile. Since modern slavery campaigns command an unusual level of bipartisan support, they can open up avenues that are not readily available when it comes to worker and migrant rights. They may not be an effective platform for advocating for radical social and economic change, but they may provide a useful fall-back position if you have made a tactical decision that limited gains are better than none.

"Many different constituencies have made a tactical decision that campaigns focusing upon trafficking and slavery are more attractive than other potential alternatives."

Modern abolitionist campaigns also enjoy other political advantages. Migrants and workers frequently have complex (and contestable) life stories and do not necessarily regard themselves as victims. This is much less of a challenge in the case of modern slavery, which tends to be strongly associated with simplistic narratives of ‘innocence lost’ and ‘good’ and ‘evil’, which have proved to be a powerful mechanism for attracting interest and investment. Few corporations are interested in supporting workers’ rights, since they associate improvements in this area with higher labour costs, yet they frequently endorse anti-trafficking and slavery campaigns, which are regarded as politically ‘safe’. Similarly, governments who are criticised for their human rights abuses also find modern slavery campaigns appealing, since they cast them in the role of saviour and protector of the most vulnerable.

When all of these considerations are put together they point to a crucial yet rarely acknowledged cost-benefit calculation: many different constituencies have made a tactical decision that campaigns focusing upon trafficking and slavery are more attractive than other potential alternatives. Doors are opened which might otherwise have remained closed. New sources of access, influence, and resources can be developed. Governments and corporations who might otherwise have been indifferent or opposed to other kinds of causes are also inclined to sign on in support, since it also serves their own agendas.

Are we better off on the inside?

These kinds of tactical calculations do not feature prominently in public conversations regarding trafficking and slavery. This is partly because they tend to be portrayed as exceptional problems which stand apart from – or above – most other political causes, and partly because talking too openly about your political strategy also runs the risk of undercutting your strategy. Calculations regarding potential trade-offs and benefits mostly take place behind the scenes. There are times, however, when this public façade is breached. Activists and insiders who work on modern slavery and trafficking are generally reluctant to speak too openly, but there is one common refrain that comes up time and time again in private meetings and off the record conversations: we are better off on the inside.

This is an old refrain. Political campaigners have grappled for centuries with the question of whether it is better to try and reform things from within than to challenge them from without. There are two key versions of this recurring dilemma when it comes to trafficking and slavery. The first is concerned with the relationship between these and other causes, such as migrant and worker rights. In this context, being ‘on the inside’ means using trafficking and slavery as a primary basis for activism and advocacy, since it is believed to help facilitate greater levels of attention, influence, and resources. The second is concerned with the relationship between modern abolitionist campaigners and political and economic elites. In this context, being ‘on the inside’ means trying to establish alliances with governments and corporations in order to nudge them in more favourable directions.

There are costs and benefits to life on the inside. Let’s start with the latter. Campaigners working on modern slavery and trafficking frequently enjoy levels of public endorsement, access, and private and public funding that campaigners working on more politically challenging causes can only envy. This is especially true of campaigners in the Global North, who comprise the vast majority of this field. It has become clear, moreover, that modern slavery and trafficking are now ‘where the action is’. Since the mid 1990s, a tremendous amount of interest and activity has been focused upon modern slavery and trafficking, and this level of interest has only further increased with time.

One key measure of this activity is the passage of new laws. In 2018, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 168 states “have legislation in place that criminalizes trafficking in persons”, marking a remarkable jump from 33 states in 2003. This means that 135 countries – or around 73% of all states in the UNODC database – passed new legislation within a fifteen-year period. This constitutes one of the most intense periods of legislative activity in the history of human rights.

A raft of other activities have accompanied these new laws. Criminal justice reforms have been a global focal point. Specialised taskforces, bureaucratic processes, training programmes, and victim protection measures have all sprung into existence. New regional and bilateral agreements have been signed. Global alliances have been established. Celebrities have been mobilised. Numerous movies and documentaries have been released. Countless marches have taken place. All of these efforts have generated a tremendous amount of attention and investment, and insiders and campaigners have been kept very busy trying to harness all the energy that trafficking and slavery have unleashed. Many campaigners and organisations working on related issues have also seen the writing on the wall, and have therefore strategically taken up the trafficking and slavery cause as well.

“Political and economic elites tend to favour self-serving and lowest common denominator approaches which don’t rock the boat.”

Most insiders are confident that all of these initiatives are having a cumulative and positive effect. Police and prosecutors can point to the criminals they have prosecuted and the victims they have rescued. Service providers can point to the additional resources they have to provide support. Lawyers can point to legislation that provides at least some provisions for victim protection. Bureaucrats can point to new protocols and procedures that better equip them to take action. Corporations can point to their public commitments and internal policies and procedures. Diplomats can point to the reforms which they attribute to public shaming and quiet negotiations. Campaigners can point to increased public interest and awareness. Insiders accept that there may be problems with some campaigns or interventions, but contend that these are overshadowed by all the good things which are taking place.

Many insiders also see the energy lighting up their activism as a political resource that can potentially be deployed – or stretched – in order to advance larger political causes and alter political conversations. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach suggests that there may not be any need for trade-offs, since concerns about modern slavery can also be harnessed in order to draw attention to the plight of other precarious and vulnerable populations. When modern slavery campaigns focus upon extreme abuses on shrimp boats in South East Asia, then doesn’t this also create a platform for challenging poor working conditions more generally? This overall approach is sometimes described in terms of stepping stones, where targeting extreme abuse is portrayed as the first step in a longer term and more ambitious political project. The first steps may well be modest, but surely more ambitious second and third steps can be anticipated in the future?

Are we really better off on the inside?

The case for life on the inside builds upon the claim that modern slavery and trafficking provide an unusually effective platform for securing real world gains. It is important to recognise, however, that the calculus is considerably more complicated than simply declaring that something is better than nothing. There are three main considerations that need to be highlighted here: 1) it is not clear that all of the energy expended has been especially effective in practical terms; 2) campaigns against modern slavery and trafficking can be deeply compromised by other political agendas; and 3) there are times when interventions targeting trafficking and slavery cause more harm than good.

The first question regarding efficacy is hard to evaluate. Changing the world has never been easy, so it is reasonable to anticipate that many mobilisations will struggle to have a practical effect. Campaigns of all stripes find it difficult to get off the ground. This is clearly not the case on this occasion, so it’s important to ask how much of the energy expended has actually translated into practical gains. As we have seen, campaigns against modern slavery and human trafficking have been able to secure an unusual level of support from many governments and corporations. However, this support frequently comes at a practical price, since political and economic elites tend to favour self-serving and lowest common denominator approaches which don’t rock the boat. This results in a paradoxical situation where many high-profile solutions to the problems associated with trafficking and slavery end up being both politically appealing and practically ineffective for the same reason: they rarely challenge dominant political and economic interests.

One illustration of this larger dynamic involves campaigns which seek to ‘raise awareness’ of trafficking and slavery. These are extremely popular in both policy and activist circles, but it is far from clear whether they have much if any positive effect. They may even cause harm by promoting racial and gender profiling or by triggering false positives, where people are wrongly treated as suspected trafficking cases because they somehow ‘fit the signs’. Similar concerns also apply to popular training programmes for taxi drivers, hotel and airline staff, and immigration agents.

The recent proliferation of ‘apps’ focusing upon trafficking does not really help much either. Over the last two decades numerous claims have been made about the power of technology as a weapon in the fight against modern slavery, but many of the claims which have been made about technology are based upon future potential. Technological ‘solutions’ risk being the train that never actually arrives at the station, and instead primarily operate in the realm of technocratic fantasy.

The lots-of-smoke-but-no-fire critique can be equally levied at corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes. These are supposed to encourage voluntary action to combat trafficking and slavery in global supply chains, but their main value from a corporate standpoint is their capacity to help deflect calls for binding public regulation. The central idea behind CSR is that enlightened corporations can play a key role in reducing their exposure to modern slavery. While this may sound good in theory, the discretionary nature of the entire exercise means that corporations consistently avoid taking actions which go against their own interests, and many of them have a direct interest in depressing wages, conditions, and margins in ways which directly enable various forms of exploitation and abuse.

Further complications arise when it comes to criminal justice reforms. Investing in criminal justice will always be the politically ‘safe’ option, since efforts to more effectively prosecute criminals is a cause which commands high levels of support. The main drawback with this approach is that it consumes a large amounts of institutional bandwidth, and therefore leaves relatively limited scope for alternatives. When criminal justice models prove to be ineffective and disappointing, which has been the dominant pattern to date, the somewhat paradoxical response has been to invest even further in criminal justice models in the hope of getting things right the next time. The fundamental problem here is that criminal justice responses focus on symptoms, rather than underlying causes. Modern slavery and trafficking are issues which are unlikely to be effectively resolved via prosecutions.

“When Ivanka Trump denounces modern slavery as an ‘ugly stain on civilization’, she is not thinking of the Trump-branded products made by vulnerable workers in Indonesia.”

Many of these high-profile ‘solutions’ are also marked by a reluctance to engage too deeply or directly with questions of economic and political interest. It is instead assumed that nearly everyone must be on the same side, since all people of good will are united in their opposition to extreme abuse. This contributes in a widespread tendency to treat trafficking as a technical challenge, and thereby fail to sufficiently engage with the fraught relationship between policies, interests, and larger agendas.

It has proved very easy to justify any number of policies in anti-trafficking or anti-slavery terms. Recent efforts to heavily restrict mobility by building a literal wall in the US or a metaphorical fortress in Europe are not motivated by concerns about the plight of migrants. Yet they have nonetheless been justified in humanitarian terms to prevent the criminal schemes of human traffickers. As Melissa Gira Grant has demonstrated, Donald Trump has invoked trafficking to give “… his ‘big, beautiful wall’ a humanitarian gloss, while stirring up racist panic about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who, Trump says, use ‘blue tape’ to gag women and girls, ‘tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs’—a disturbing, baseless detail Trump mentions frequently”.

Corporations have also found that narrowly focusing upon individual cases of ‘exceptional’ abuse is an effective strategy for displacing or deflecting concerns about how they treat their workers more generally. When Ivanka Trump denounces modern slavery as an “ugly stain on civilization”, she is not thinking of the Trump-branded products made by precarious and vulnerable workers in places such as Indonesia. Campaigns focusing upon modern slavery often leave larger systems at the margins of the frame. They may not only be ineffective. They may also end up indirectly legitimating the global economic systems which manufacture systems of vulnerability and abuse in the first place.

Some of the negative effects of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking interventions have come to be described in terms of collateral damage. These damages include police abusing people they are supposed to be rescuing and immigration agents deporting migrants captured in raids. They are particularly acute in the case of commercial sex work, where all kinds of harmful external interventions, such as bans on advertising sex work online, have been chiefly justified in terms of combating sex trafficking. Further problems have also been identified in relation to ‘raid and rescue’ operations, which involve kicking down doors to arrest villains and rescue victims.

While rescue and rehabilitation sound good in theory they frequently fall short in practice. People who have been ‘rescued’ can be subject to deportation proceedings or end up being forcibly incarcerated in poorly run and unsafe ‘care homes’. These homes are especially notorious in India, where sex workers who have been ‘rescued’ routinely end up running from their ‘rescuers’. For many sex workers, campaigns against trafficking and slavery can be best understood as a stalking horse for a longstanding political agenda which seeks to deny the legitimacy of sex work as work. Not everyone who works in this field has the same attitude towards sex work, but the frequently negative effects of these campaigns and interventions for sex workers raises challenging questions about the costs and benefits of life on the inside, since it is other insiders who are targeting sex work.

Inside? Outside? Do we really need to choose?

Once all of these considerations are placed on the table the cost/benefit calculus becomes very challenging. Insiders can point to positive gains, yet questions remain about the extent to which their activities end up helping to both legitimate and disguise other political and economic agendas. Outsiders may be less compromised, yet they may also find it difficult to advance their goals, since campaigns focusing upon migrant and worker rights have been on the back foot for decades now. Campaigns against human trafficking and modern slavery may well be flawed from an analytical and political standpoint, but they also command a high degree of political currency and legitimacy. What would we stand to gain or lose in political and strategic terms if we started somewhere else? Perhaps attempting to discard trafficking and slavery is also politically risky? Does being ‘on the outside’ mean sacrificing at least some access and influence in favour of a more ambitious and ideologically ‘pure’ political vision, which ultimately has very little chance of actually being realised in practice?

These are not the kind of questions which can be answered once and for all, but instead require close and continual attention to potential trade-offs, opportunities, and complications. Not all anti-slavery or trafficking interventions look the same, and the kinds of strategic calculations which shape the behaviour of civil society campaigners may well be different to the calculations of officials working for governments or international organisations. Things may look different for lawyers than for social workers. Political constraints and opportunities found in one country are going to be different to those in other countries. There may be occasions when anti-trafficking or anti-slavery are strategically beneficial. There may be others where they are not. Context matters a great deal here.

That being said, it is not possible to entirely disentangle the local from the global. Campaigns against modern slavery and trafficking consume a huge amount of energy and attention, and therefore have the effect of both displacing and distorting other kinds of political conversations. Being on ‘the inside’ may offer short-term gains which come at a longer-term cost. Many campaigners in many different fields have recognised that the levels of interest and investment associated with trafficking and slavery can be harnessed to help advance their own goals, but this in turn contributes to a widespread reluctance to bite the hand which feeds. Many insiders are aware that there are major problems with modern slavery and human trafficking in both theory and practice, yet they nonetheless remain reluctant to say too much about many of these problems in public, since this runs the risk undercutting their political platform. Major scandals frequently disappear without leaving a trace, such as the disastrous ‘slave redemption’ programme in Sudan or the fabrications of Somaly Mam. Shortcomings continue to be excused since the field is ‘new’, despite having been around for decades. If there continues to be little or no appetite for internal critique and public reflexivity then the same kinds of ‘solutions’ will be tried again and again, despite their now well-documented flaws and limitations.

Over the next month we will be publishing a range of positions and perspectives regarding the tactical and strategic calculations associated with human trafficking and modern slavery. All of our contributors accept that there is room for further improvement when it comes to current practices. The key issue here is not whether or not things can be improved, but instead what improvement might look like. Some people want to build upon what we have by developing new strategies and models. Others want to tear things down and start somewhere else. Some favour a mix of both approaches. While everyone has a view regarding what should be done, the rubber really hits the road when it comes to identifying the strategies which are required in order to translate these goals into practice.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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