Beyond Slavery Debates & Roundtables

It's time to get off the fence on sex workers' rights

Download as a PDF

Attitudes towards human trafficking and commercial sex can be roughly divided into three main camps: pro-sex workers’ rights, prostitution abolitionists, and 'on the fence'. The arguments favoured by the first two camps will already be familiar to many people. This new feature focuses upon the third camp: anti-trafficking activists and organisations who try their best to avoid taking a clear public position on the legal status of commercial sex. This is not a fringe project pursued by a small minority. It is not uncommon for fence-sitters to outnumber both advocates of sex worker rights and prostitution abolitionists within many anti-trafficking circles. Their strategic silence come with major costs.

We know from first-hand experience that the sex workers’ rights vs. abolitionist debate generates strong emotions. It is not our intention to focus upon this debate here. Instead, we want to find out why so many people and organisations try their best to avoid this argument entirely, and what it means for sex workers when they sit on the sidelines.

What has philanthrocapitalism done to the anti-trafficking movement?

Download as a PDF

Philanthrocapitalism incorporates a deep, ideological commitment to market-based solutions to the world’s problems. The assumption at its core is that the same techniques, management styles, and value systems that enable corporations to amass tremendous wealth can and should be used to correct the world’s social problems. Rather than simply funding third-party initiatives, today’s philanthrocapitalists create and manage ventures based on their own ideas of how to fix the world. They invest rather than give, and fully expect to see a return on their investment.

Philanthrocapitalists first discovered human trafficking as an area of intervention in the late 2000s, and since then trafficking has drawn in dozens of large donors ranging from long-established foundations to venture capital funds and new tech firms. Their money and influence are now central to the work of the hundreds of organisations operating in this field, and as their funding prerogatives shift they are able to shape and reshape the nature of anti-trafficking interventions.

This policy debate asks whether and how philanthrocapitalism has helped or hurt global anti-trafficking efforts. The contributors represent a range of stakeholders, including staff at large foundations, anti-trafficking advocates who have born witness to philanthrocapitalism’s effects on the ground, and small NGOs who have benefited from or contended with philanthrocapitalism’s largess. The debate also includes authors who offer insights into new forms of giving and cultures of mutual aid that offer alternatives to the philanthrocapital model.


Anniversaries are a good time to take stock. Over the course of 2020 there were many events focusing upon the Palermo protocol and its legacies, but these all too often took the form of uncritical celebrations rather than meaningful reflections. In this double feature we dive deeper. And when reflecting upon the legacies and effects of the Palermo protocol, there are two vital questions that stand out.

What is exploitation?

Download as a PDF

Our first question focuses upon the political, legal, and ethical challenges of drawing moral and legal lines between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ forms of exploitation under capitalism, a system in which profit is the primary goal. What ‘counts’ as exploitation in contexts where the deck is heavily stacked in favour of employers and against workers? If someone consents to work for poor wages and in bad conditions, is that the end of the matter? Should only the most extreme cases of abuse concern us? Or do we need to worry about the vulnerability inherent to all market life?

The trafficking protocol does a poor job of addressing this key question. Although it establishes exploitation as integral to the definition of trafficking, it doesn’t define exploitation itself, nor does it clarify where this begins or ends. We believe that this uncertainty contributes to all kinds of problems. There is a widespread tendency among policymakers and activists to approach exploitation in much the same way as pornography, where ‘you know it when you see it’. This results in a situation where the defining features of exploitation are more often assumed than analysed.

With this in mind, the goal of the first half of our double feature is to sharpen our understanding of this core concept. We have invited leading experts on law, philosophy, economics, and sociology to reflect on what exploitation looks like, how it has been and should be defined, what kinds of political and legal effects follow from different definitions, and what kind of role it should play within political activism and mobilisation. We do not expect to resolve this question once and for all, but asking it publicly and critically is essential.

Are we better off on the inside?

Download as a PDF

Our second question focuses upon political tactics and strategic calculations. The main goal of this half of our feature is to bring to light the kinds of behind-the-scenes calculations which have influenced how, why, and whether different campaigners and organisations have taken up the cause of combating human trafficking and, now, ‘modern slavery’. We hope to capture many of the issues at stake here by focusing upon one key question: are we better off on the inside? This is a question which frequently comes up in private conversations, but rarely gets discussed in public.

Most experts with first-hand experience of anti-trafficking or anti-slavery interventions and campaigns are well aware that they can be ineffective or compromised by other agendas. However, this recognition tends to be caveated with the claim that it is better to remain on the inside, despite the problems, to be better positioned to try and move things forward more productively over time. This can sometimes result in a degree of self-censorship, since speaking out too loudly or too often can mean risking your access, influence, and funding. Rejecting or resisting dominant models can lead to being left on the outside looking in, which can make it more difficult to have your voice heard or to exert influence over key decisions.

Many of the people and organisations engaged in anti-trafficking or anti-slavery work at least partially justify their approach by appealing to these kinds of arguments. However, there remains a widespread reluctance to talk openly about the trade-offs that come with this decision, so there hasn’t been enough analysis of whether their underlying assumptions stand up to scrutiny.

Yet it is also by no means clear that alternative approaches would be more effective. Critics frequently propose policies that would undoubtedly have beneficial effects, such as separating immigration enforcement from labour inspections, but these also tend to be a tall order politically. Is it better to work towards modest gains that might actually be achievable in the short term, or to embrace more radical positions that are harder to realise?

In a sense, this question is an echo of the old reform or revolution debate. In this scenario, the reformists argue that they’ve never before had such a powerful rallying call as trafficking or modern slavery, and its value as a mobilisation tool outweighs its drawbacks. They also maintain that small and incremental improvements are all that is achievable, and that something is better than nothing.

Advocates for more revolutionary approaches don’t entirely disagree. They understand that shouting slogans from the sidelines that powerful people will ignore will not have immediate (or any) positive impact. But they are much less confident that staying on the inside is beneficial. This is because they regard trafficking as a political tool which ends up legitimating the abuse of migrants, punishing sex workers, and deflecting longstanding efforts to improve the rights and protections afforded to precarious workers. Our current global order is deeply unjust and unequal. How should we respond, they ask, if anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns play a role in helping it to stay that way?

We do not expect to come to a final answer, since this question is heavily influenced by context and position. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the only way to improve current tactics and strategies is to talk about them in depth, and that frank conversation is exactly what we intend to have.

Happy reading.

After the 'migration crisis': how Europe works to keep Africans in Africa

Download as a PDF

Migration from Africa to Europe has, since the long summer of migration in 2015, been at the top of the European political agenda. As right-wing parties have gained at the ballot box through their anti-migration rhetoric, the priority for most policymakers has been to look tough and – above all – to prevent such an experience from ever happening again.

To this end, the European Union and individual EU member states have devoted large amounts of resources to trying to keep people in Africa. One usually speaks of carrots and sticks, but given the sheer scale and variety of interventions it might be more appropriate to speak of bushels of the former and bundles of the latter. As this feature demonstrates in great detail, an awful lot has been going on.

Being based in Europe, we are generally only exposed to European accounts of what is happening and why it is happening when it comes to migration. In order to break through our own filter bubble, we set out to explore the question of migration from a more African perspective. This feature is the result of that endeavour.

What projects have been happening, and how have they affected African communities? How have African states balanced European demands with domestic pressures and priorities? How do African policymakers and citizens even understand migration? What are their own migration agendas? And how can Europe and Africa reset the conversation on migration to the benefit of all? These are just a few of the many questions we asked our seventeen participants, and time and time again their answers surprised us and brought nuance to what is all too often a one-sided conversation. Producing this feature has been an enormous learning experience for us, and we warmly encourage you to explore its many pages in the hope that it will be for you too. Read on...

How can advocates effectively speak about and argue for decriminalised sex work?

Download as a PDF

What is the best strategy for ensuring that people who sell sex are protected? Should the state ban it entirely? Should it allow the sale of sex but not its purchase, as the increasingly widespread ‘Nordic’ model does? Or decriminalise it altogether? These questions are endlessly repeated, but for sex workers themselves the debate is long over: only decriminalisation increases their safety. We believe them, so this is where our new series begins.

We invited sex workers and their allies around the world to share their experiences advocating for decriminalisation on openDemocracy. We also sought out stories from organisations that used to oppose decriminalising sex work but now support it. Our goal was to find out what works, what doesn’t and how it can be done better.

The response exceeds all our expectations. Sex workers and migrants have been organising against exploitation and abuse for a very long time, so any conversation about different strategies should prioritise their expertise and experience.

Universal basic income: a way through the storm?

Download as a PDF

Exploited workers – including those labelled by authorities as ‘victims of trafficking’ or as ‘modern slaves’ – typically consent to the work that they do, however abusive or unpleasant, because it represents the best or only option they have of making the money they need. This has been shown in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and North America.

This begs the question: if we really want to end ‘modern slavery’, and indeed if we’re serious about protecting people from all forms of exploitation, then why not ensure that everyone always has a minimum amount of money in their pocket such that they can say no to bad work?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. Social protection scholars have long made the case that we should ‘just give money to the poor’ if we want to help them, and that doing so is cheaper, more effective and more humane than traditional policies which are costly, complicated and often regressively conditional. Basic income advocates say the same things. A basic income is defined as a regular cash payment delivered unconditionally and individually to all people. Think of it as a small salary just for being human. It won’t make you rich but it should keep you alive in a world where you need money to survive.

In order to explore this question, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery has brought together a series of experts, scholars and activists to reflect on the question: What role could basic income play in the fight against unfree labour?

Read the complete introduction

'Campaigns to raise public awareness of human trafficking have flaws, but their overall impact is positive. YES OR NO?'

Elena Shih and Joel Quirk (eds)

Campaigners, activists and government officials spend much of their time and energy crafting messages that are designed to win specific audiences over to their cause. The main goal behind these messages is to ‘raise awareness’ of specific problems or issues, and to offer target audiences with potential solutions or remedies.

Human trafficking awareness campaigns intend to inspire both individuals and institutions to ‘do something’ (there is even a campaign called While taking action against injustice is undoubtedly a laudable impulse, the ‘something’ in question is by no means as straightforward as it might first appear. Thus while awareness campaigns may well reach large audiences, are they teaching their audiences the right things?

Read the complete introduction

Related Feature: Can awareness-raising prevent exploitation?

Ending forced labor and modern slavery in global supply chains requires binding legislation, rather than corporate self-regulation and self-disclosure. Yes or No?

Genevieve LeBaron and Joel Quirk (eds)

We sometimes speak about the global economy as if it were a force of nature, or as a patient with uncertain health. It can be tamed or unleashed, wounded or healed. The specific language used can reveal a great deal about how people think about economic processes and government policies. As any economist can tell you, the main bone of contention is often the role of regulation. Why and when is regulation required, and what form should it ideally take? Over the last three decades, this enduring debate has taken on new features, since so much of what now gets consumed comes from factories and workers in other countries. Instead of making goods in-house, corporations now subcontract many aspects of their production processes to partners in developing countries with lower wages, less regulation, and fewer protections for workers.

There is no question that global supply chains are good for corporations, but do they work for workers? As you might expect, this question can be answered in many ways, with different responses covering the full spectrum of yes, no, maybe, and sometimes. In a world where jobs are scarce there will always be claims that nearly any job is better than no job at all. Yet this begs an obvious question regarding the types of jobs that have been created. Major corporations use their market power to drive down costs by securing favourable contracts with suppliers, since their suppliers frequently have limited scope to negotiate better returns, better conditions, or less demanding production cycles. This combination of low prices and high expectations means that companies further down the supply chain frequently experience sustained pressure to depress pay and conditions, to the point where forced labour can appear as an unavoidable business strategy.

Read the complete introduction

Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData