Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Week five activity: political difficulty and potential efficacy, part one

Changing the world has never been easy. Reform visas? Open borders? What could be both politically possible and effective?

1 June 2018, 12.01am
Adriano Giulio Giovanelli. All rights reserved

Over the last two weeks, we have asked you to evaluate a number of different solutions and approaches to combating forced and precarious labour globally. Not all of these solutions are equally useful. Some are likely to do more harm than good. Some are likely to do very little. There is no one right answer regarding which is which. You have to make up your own mind.

This exercise takes the analysis of potential solutions one step further.

You should have already made a series of judgments regarding which solutions will be most effective. This exercise links together questions of potential efficacy with political difficulty.

Over the last two decades, the cause of combating ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ has been endorsed by public figures of every ideological persuasion, including conservatives, faith leaders, liberals, traditionalists and progressives. These endorsements have helped to create a misleading yet nonetheless widespread impression that ‘modern slavery’ is a non-ideological and ‘bipartisan’ problem, which everyone can unite around in shared opposition and revulsion.

This language of universal struggle is attractive but unhelpful. Any political cause which everyone can get behind is also a cause that poses no real challenge to the global status quo. Many of the ‘solutions’ which have been proposed for combating ‘modern slavery’ are politically popular because they are undemanding and non-threatening. In stark contrast to historical campaigns to end legal slavery, which were firmly aimed at the profits and privileges of the rich and powerful, the most popular ‘solutions’ rarely pose a direct threat to major political and economic interests.

Combating forced and precarious labour is not a cause that everyone should be able to agree upon. As we have already seen, global systems of labour exploitation provide all kinds of economic and other benefits to governments, consumers and corporations. These exploitative systems will only begin to change when the institutions and individuals who benefit from the ongoing operations of these systems are directly challenged. Not everyone can or should be on the same side. Solutions that are likely to have the most effect are unlikely to be easy and uncontroversial. Many of the most popular ‘solutions’ which have been proposed for combating ‘modern slavery’ have been embraced because they are politically easy (or can be invoked to support other agendas, such as border protection), not because they are practically effective. Potential solutions that challenge established systems are likely to provoke sustained political opposition since the established rules of the game are being called into question politically.

This tension between efficacy and difficulty also raises difficult questions regarding tactical and political calculations. Many organisations and individuals have made a tactical decision to concentrate their energies upon human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ because they have calculated that talking in these terms helps to open doors (and secure funds) which might otherwise have remained closed. There is a strategic case to be made here since it has been clear for decades now that migrant and worker rights are being heavily eroded.

Some campaigners have recognised that it is now exceedingly difficult to protect all workers and migrants, and have therefore made a tactical decision to strategically embrace the cause of combating human trafficking – which narrowly targets ‘exceptional’ cases – since it continues to be supported by governments and corporations who are hostile to migrants and workers more generally. Campaigns that revolve around ‘modern slavery’ and human trafficking are more likely to receive a favourable political response from people who walk the halls of power, but they are also likely to be less effective in bringing about significant change (and can sometimes do real harm). Campaigns that focus upon migrant and worker rights have a much harder political road to travel, but they may (or may not) pay off in terms of greater political and institutional gains. Any discussion of potential solutions and strategies must take these tactical calculations into account.

The main goal of this exercise is to help make sense of the underlying issues and political calculations at stake here. Building upon your answers to exercises from previous weeks, you will be asked to make two different assessments, which can be summarised as follows:

  • Efficacy: How effective is a given solution likely to be?
  • Difficulty: How much political opposition is a given solution likely to generate?

You should already be familiar with the range of options when it comes to likely efficacy. In the case of political difficulty, your potential choices are organised as follows:

Political difficulty:

How much political opposition is a given solution likely to generate?

  • Bipartisan political support: this is a solution that nearly all members of society will be able to agree upon, regardless of their differences. There is little controversy. (Green)
  • Majority political support: this is a solution which most members of society will be able to agree upon, regardless of other differences. There is minor controversy. (Light Green)
  • Significant opposition: this is a solution that will generate significant opposition and controversy. Important interests are likely to be threatened and/or contradictory moral judgments are likely to be mobilised. There is a major controversy. (Yellow)
  • Entrenched opposition: this is a solution that is likely to present a direct challenge to key political and economic interests. There are high levels of lasting division. (Light Red).
  • Political and economic polarisation: This solution is so controversial that it splinters society into irreconcilable camps that are fundamentally opposed to each other. This, in turn, places severe strain on established institutions and political systems. (Dark Red)

This scale assumes that specific solutions in question have been taken up as serious political propositions. The scale can also be read another way, which is in terms of likely political success. In this reading, the options of opposition and polarisation can be read as 1) this solution is very unlikely to be implemented, and 2) this solution has virtually no chance of being implemented.

Round three (week five):

  1. Introducing a ‘dirty list’ of companies.
  2. Transparency legislation in global supply chains.
  3. Strengthening border protections.
  4. Warning migrants about dangerous travel.
  5. Reforming tied visa schemes to protect migrant workers
  6. Open borders.

This list is by no means exhaustive, so we would also encourage you to make a case for why other factors should also be included.

Activity instructions

  1. Click on the activity so it opens in a full screen.
  2. Assign a colour to each factor by clicking that colour on the strip next to that factor block.
  3. Click on the factors block to show additional information. To exit additional information, click of the text “exit” found at the top right-hand side of the additional information square.
  4. When you are finished, take a screenshot of your answers for future reference. We will be returning to them later.
  5. Push ESC. To exit full-screen mode.
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The course was originally released on the platform in 2018, where it has now been archived. As of 2021 it is available on openDemocracy.

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