Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Extreme exploitation is not a problem of human nature

Extreme exploitation is a structural problem, not a problem of human nature. Unless we deal with the ‘root causes’, which I locate in inequality, then it will continue. And global inequalities are growing.

Bridget Anderson
9 October 2014
A rally in Hong Kong demanding justice for migrant workers.

A rally in Hong Kong demanding justice for migrant workers. Jayne Russell/Demotix. All rights reserved.Beyond Trafficking and Slavery contacted Professor Bridget Anderson as part of our launch to get her take on the ‘modern-day slavery’ and trafficking debates today.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: According to politicians and the popular media, the kinds of extreme exploitation evoked by words such as ‘slavery’, ‘trafficking’ or ‘forced labour’ has been on the rise for some time. Do you think this is so? What factors explain it?

Bridget Anderson: The concern with trafficking and the column inches devoted to it has certainly been on the rise for some time. Relations that might previously have been given some kind of description like ‘severe exploitation’ or ‘abusive’ or ‘debt bondage’ or even ‘belonging to a cult-like group’ are now brought together under the heading of trafficking, modern day slavery etc. It is a relatively recent and burgeoning category that brings together a wide range of phenomena, but I don’t think that should lead us to think that extreme exploitation is recent.

We also have to watch falling into the trap of reifying trafficking. What factors explain it? Partly the very slipperiness of the definition. These terms are used to describe an ever-growing range of situations, so numbers can be demonstrated as increasing. As states pump ever more money into ‘anti-trafficking’, NGOs desperate for funds will don the mantle of ‘anti-traffickers’ even though they are doing the same work they always did. This is NOT to say that there aren’t a whole range of unspeakable working conditions, desperately poor wages, and other abuses. But we need to be cautious about labels and quantification which can obscure more than they reveal.

BTS: What do you think of current protection and prevention policies? The last 10 years have seen a huge spate of anti-trafficking and anti-slavery legislation, as well as large amounts of money spent on policies and projects. Do they work?

BA: Perhaps it’s obvious from my previous answer. To evaluate these policies we need to be clear about what exactly is the problem that they are attempting to prevent. Extreme exploitation is a structural problem, not a problem of human nature. Unless we deal with the ‘root causes’, which I locate in inequality, then it will continue. Data suggest that global inequalities are growing. If more than half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 80% of the population live in states where inequalities are widening, then what do we expect?

BTS:  What about ‘root causes’? We often hear about the need for policy to ‘address root causes’, but are there any policies that truly tackle the systemic basis of severe exploitation?

BA: Yes – universal basic income (UBI), or even, to be stratospherically utopian, a world where the role of money is drastically reduced. And a world where we do not limit our imaginations to ‘the job’. The job is not the answer to everything. Getting us all into alienated ‘productive’ labour, even if we are all earning the same, will not excite human potential. That’s where the UBI can be of help I think. But this requires a world without borders. Because global inequality now, unlike a few hundred years ago, depends so much on where you’re born rather than if you are a master or a servant.

BTS: On the subject of root causes, there are those who argue that crimes like forced labour are inevitable under capitalism, just as trafficking is inevitable in a world of closed borders. What do you think? Can you imagine any utopian solutions, like the Universal Basic Income?

BA: See above! I think that gross exploitation comes along with inequality. So our response to end inequality is indeed utopian, but it must also be to think big. We are too constrained by pragmatism, by the sense that this is the way things have to be. Going against the status quo – whether it was fighting Atlantic Slavery, organising for votes for women, etc. - has always risked being called ‘utopian’ and unrealistic. Well, these were not unrealistic. But what is clear is that they were not asking enough. So let’s be stratospherically utopian and imaginative. The possibilities are enormous.

BTS: In contrast to the utopian, there’s been a real emphasis lately in policy and business circles on the importance of voluntary ‘codes of conduct’. The idea is that in an age of competitiveness-focused, ‘light-touch regulation’, companies should be left to police their own supply chains and manage their labour relations independently. What do you make of this? Is there any real chance that severe exploitation can be overcome by leaving businesses to themselves?

BA: No.

BTS: Why do you think that slavery, trafficking, and forced labour have become such celebrity issues? Figures from Bono to Blair now line up to condemn, and New Abolitionism in the US is really big business. What explains this?

BA: Interesting question. In part it must be to do with celebrity culture and the ways that charities dealing with a range of (usually 'third world') issues front with a famous face.  I think that perhaps in part it is because a lot of wealthy people – by which I don't just mean the 1%, which always seems to me to get the middle class out of an ethical hole – feel uncomfortable about inequality and injustice and want to do something about it.

I think it's good that people want to change things because they feel that it doesn't seem right. The problem with the current situation is that it means that people can continue to pay their domestic worker below the minimum wage because they are not beating her. That is the stereotype of the evil trafficker, which is so removed from most people's daily lives that it means we don't have to reflect on our own behaviour, which is obviously so much 'better' than theirs.

In many ways trafficking saves the market. It suggests that it is possible to have a non-exploitative capitalist, bordered system where everyone just gets along fine. So it makes sense that it has become its own business, as an extension I suppose of ethical trading. 


Beyond Slavery

This 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.

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