Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Fielding the wrong ball – culture as a cause of ‘modern slavery’

New abolitionists often attribute trafficking in certain areas to ‘cultural attitudes’. In doing so, they not only explain away the legacies of European and American colonialism. They also falsely differentiate between exploitation in some ‘bad’ parts of the world and similar practices in their own countries.

Sam Okyere
8 October 2014
Wed - Okyere - 633344 (Demotix).jpg

Fishing community and the children of Krokrobite beach - Ghana. Juliette Atkinson/Demotix. All rights reserved.New abolitionists such as the Abolish Slavery Coalition, Walk Free Foundation and Free the Slaves, among others, have described modern day slavery as a rapidly growing moral affront that requires urgent redress.

The responsibility to rid the world of this scourge, according to the group Made in a Free World, falls on all shoulders and not just those of gold wearers, chocolate consumers, football players, wearers of cotton and other garments, or fish eaters. Apparently we are all twenty-first century slave owners or have slaves working for us.

Slavery is a word with which no one wants to be associated. Thus, the message that somehow we are all beneficiaries of ‘slave labour’ and therefore complicit in the others’ enslavement is highly evocative and powerful. Indeed, a recent UK Home Office campaign suggests that individuals are being enslaved right in our neighbourhoods and that we need to help free them. The modern day slavery campaign has gained significant traction. It now counts presidents and global leaders, celebrities and self-professed slave hunters among its ranks, and informs national legislation with efforts such as the draft Modern Slavery Bill in the UK.

Asking questions

The idea of ‘modern slavery’ is challenged however when certain critical questions are asked about it. Research evidence, ‘victims’ accounts, and media reports have cast doubts on: the basis upon which certain phenomena are deemed to constitute modern day slavery; the figures quoted in support of the supposed pandemic levels of slavery today; the narratives of victimhood and freedom promoted by the discourse; and the credibility and actions of some individuals who have shaped the modern day slavery agenda.

These doubts are linked to more fundamental questions regarding the supposedly clear-cut distinction between phenomena that attract the ire of new abolitionists, and those producing similar or worse human suffering that we are asked to discount from the list of transgressions. For example, what distinguishes the conditions endured by ‘victims of human trafficking’ who are often regarded as modern day slaves, from the experiences of women held at immigration detention facilities? The latter are also subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse before being moved against their will to destinations where their safety, well-being, and livelihoods are seriously compromised?

The picture becomes murkier still when the main reasons given by new abolitionists for the existence of ‘modern day slavery’ are scrutinised. The Global Fund to End Slavery attributes the cause and scale of modern day slavery to three main points: transnational crime, corruption, and cultural attitudes. For sure, raising funds to support those deemed to be enslaved is laudable. But the reasons offered for their enslavement woefully fail to capture the complex dynamics pushing people into the conditions defined as modern day slavery by new abolitionists.

Deliberately or otherwise, new abolitionists like the Walk Free Foundation shy away from acknowledging more fundamental political and historical points, such as the deleterious impacts of global capitalism on people’s lives and the legacy of colonialism in the developing world. Indeed, some supposed ‘cultural attitudes’ are inextricably linked or traceable to colonial policies.

Ghana’s colonial cycle of deprivation

An example can be drawn from Ghana. Although research evidence has painted a different and more complex picture, the independent migration of young people from Northern Ghana to seek income and other opportunities elsewhere in the country is often held up as evidence of child trafficking. This is particularly the case if they are found working in cocoa farming or fishing. This situation is attributed to the cultural attitudes of those involved, in line with the position of the Walk Free Foundation.

But history offers a more informed rationale. Under British colonial rule, the northern part of Ghana was denied roads, schools, hospitals, factories and other infrastructural development. A stated policy of the British colonial administrators was to starve that part of the country of resources and developmental projects in order to force northerners to move down south to work in the mines, farms and factories which had been established there.

A cycle of poverty and deprivation was started by this colonial policy that has been difficult to reverse even after independence. Indeed, with subsistence farming as the peoples’ mainstay, socio-economic deprivation in the three northern regions worsened throughout the 1980s when Ghana was compelled by IMF structural adjustment conditionalities to remove subsidies from agricultural products. Conditions have not improved much since. For many in the northern part of the country, both old and young, moving in search of work is mainly a response to hardship and a lack of opportunities. It is not simply because of a ‘cultural predisposition’ to move.

Similar suffering

It is particularly instructive to note that new abolitionists tend to roll out the cultural attitude explanation only in cases such as bonded labour in India, child brick manufacturing in Pakistan, child labour on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, and other forms of exploitation that occur in the developing world. Similar human suffering in western societies, such as the widespread and persistent abuse of migrant domestic workers, are not seen as an issue of culture or among the examples of modern slavery, even though the evidence sometimes ticks all the criteria identified by new abolitionists.

This serves to create an impression that the situations labelled as modern slavery mostly happen in the ‘dark’, developing world where abuse and exploitation are part of the everyday way of life. This is put in contrast to ‘modern’ Western societies, where no such ‘cultures’ are assumed to exist. More significantly, the emphasis on culture, corruption, and transnational organised crime as the underlying reasons for the existence of the conditions identified by new abolitionists serves to hide what is truly at issue: the need to address social, economic, and political power imbalances and injustices both locally and globally.

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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