Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How did we get the Modern Slavery Act?

The Modern Slavery Act was supposed to make Britain a global leader in the fight against slavery, but where did it come from and does it do what its proponents claim?

Michael Dottridge
25 September 2016
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Woody Hibbard/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

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Michael Dottridge spent 25 years working in human rights organisations, Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International (where he was director for six years). Since 1995 Michael’s work has focused on forms of exploitation, how to protect the people involved and how to prevent the exploitation from occurring in the first place, whether it concerns child labour, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, forced labour or trafficking in human beings. He has given particular attention to issues surrounding exploitation and trafficking that involve children. Since 2002 he has worked independently as a consultant on human rights and child rights issues, and from 2011 to 2016 he was a trustee of the United Nations Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. He works in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish and is the author of numerous reports and publications about cases of exploitation.

Scene 1 In this clip, Dottridge offers us his view of the pre-history of the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking negotiated in 2000 and adopted in 2003, a product of feminist civil wars over prostitution and the dominance of ‘crime-fighters’ who set the tone for the Protocol.


Scene 2 In this clip, Dottridge offers us his view of the pre-history of the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking negotiated in 2000 and adopted in 2003, a product of feminist civil wars over prostitution and the dominance of ‘crime-fighters’ who set the tone for the Protocol.
Scene 3 Dottridge discusses the emergence at the international level of alternative vocabularies that described trafficking in terms of slavery, and how this influenced domestic initiatives in the UK to formulate the MSA in response.
Scene 4 Dottridge speaks out on the key players in the MSA process, and where responsibility lies for a meaningful anti-trafficking strategy.
Scene 5 Dottridge discusses the pros and cons of the terms ‘forced labour’, ‘trafficking’, ‘modern slavery’ and ‘extreme exploitation’, cutting through the definitional conundrum to call for a holistic approach instead.
Scene 6 Dottridge on where we go from here.

The road to the MSA

Before the Palermo Protocol was being negotiated there was quite a busy civil war in the feminist movement between an extreme anti-prostitution wing, which wanted to appropriate the term trafficking, versus a broader movement which had a human rights stamp on it. Here, human rights means that if you want to be a sex worker, you have some entitlement to do that. If you want to survive, you have some entitlement to do that. You have rights.

Once the discussions opened in Vienna was very clear that the interests of the sponsoring states were on prostitution. There was no inclination or interest among the delegations in Vienna to put strong human rights line into what became the Palermo Protocol. It was very much crime fighters, as I suppose that would like to be called, who were involved in setting the terms of the protocol.

So we saw a protocol adopted that was extremely weak on protection, fairly incoherent on prevention, and I still haven’t worked out quite who it was who said ‘this a protocol about three Ps, focusing on prevention, prosecution and protection’. It shouldn’t have been true and it unfortunately had an effect which it is still there today of reducing what could have been a useful legal instrument to a sort of caricature.

Ineffective laws

What we also saw in the first five years was an extremely ineffective implementation of the prosecution provisions of the protocol. For the first decade there were a lot of complaints that it hadn’t increased the number of prosecutions and certainly not the number of convictions of traffickers that everyone had expected. Certainly by 2007, there were some quite experienced law enforcement officials who were pointing out that if you tried to convince a victim witness who had been trafficked to testify without giving them adequate protection or assistance, there was actually zero chance they would testify.

So by following the terms of the Palermo Protocol directly, it was self-defeating. There’s been some dreadful instances since 2007 of states moving backwards. An obvious case is Mexico, which had adopted what was perhaps not very good legislation against trafficking, but it was still legislation based on the Palermo Protocol that talked about recruitment with abusive means for a purpose of exploitation. They then adopted a subsequent law that removed all reference to the abusive means.

Instead of looking at a situation in their country – the forms of exploitation that their nationals have been subjected to elsewhere or in their country, or that non-nationals are subjected to within their jurisdiction – and legislating to meet that, they simply took either the terms of the UN Trafficking Protocol or even worse those of the US law on trafficking in persons, which was adopted a month before the Palermo Protocol. It’s worth point out that when a major super power chooses to go in advance of international law, unfortunately its really trying to break the consensus that the international community agrees upon.

The rise of ‘modern slavery’

From 2012 onwards, we have the reinvention of a new concept of ‘modern slavery’. This may or may not prove positive in the long term, but at the moment it just caused more confusion.

Of course, they sometimes choose to be confused. This is certainly true in the United Kingdom. I have monitored on three occasions where British government ministers have spoken out about the awfulness of the fact that there are migrants waiting in Calais to try and hop under a bus or onto a train or into a lorry to get into the United Kingdom. This is classic frontier jumping. Each time, however, they have invoked the concept of human trafficking to say that by sending cops in to destroy the bush huts of these migrants, the French and British law enforcements are contributing to stopping trafficking of persons.

I haven’t yet worked out their logic, but I think my logic goes like this. If, amidst a bunch of irregular migrants, there are some who are being trafficked and who are going to be exploited on arrival, you only increase the cost of their migration by sending them back to their starting point. You increase the debt that they are going to have to pay off, so actually what you have done is aggravate the situation.

At some point, and I suppose it must have been 2011/12, some movers and shakers in the Conservative party evidently decided that the issue of slavery – if not trafficking – is one they wanted to pick up on. It could have been they were thinking strategically – I have no idea – and actually knew that in the last year of the coalition government they would not be able to pass any meaningful new legislation and therefore the issue of slavery was put on the agenda.

I don’t know how it happened, but either way it was Ian Duncan Smith’s think tank that did the ground work. It produced that report, I think at the beginning of 2012, with Frank Field (MP) at the head of it as it were. This created the ground work for what happened subsequently – it was essentially a sort of Tory-Labour or Tory-Conservative (for the small ‘c’-Labour alliance that went after) that helped produce that first report in 2012.

Frank Field then played a key role right up until 2014, both before and after new legislation was proposed. Each time he did the right thing – he and his colleagues did put a lot of emphasis on the need for protection. In early 2014 I was asked to go and provide information to a joint House of Lords-House of Commons committee, but only on the issue of children and what legislative provisions would be suitable to define exploitation of children. So I only had one direct interchange with parliamentarians, which confirmed that they still didn’t have a great deal of knowledge of what the state’s legal obligations already were under the 1956 Supplementary Convention or the ILO instruments and so on. The legislation ultimately reflected those weaknesses.

Allies and adversaries

Now as someone with republican sympathies, I don’t in principle have a great deal of sympathy for a rather outmoded second chamber such as the House of Lords. However, I have to acknowledge that Lord Sandwich (John Edward Hollister Montagu) is a great lobbyist on this issue. Lord Hylton (Raymond Hervey Jolliffe) should be give the human rights prize as far as the Modern Slavery Act is concerned, because he went on struggling until the very last days in March 2015 to get the right sort of provisions put in as far as migrant domestic workers are concerned.

These were individuals who had already shone in the late 1990s, so there was nothing new. There were a few new people in the House of Lords, and the House of Commons very clearly, but there were others fortunately who had already done the right thing at earlier legislation opportunities. So they knew what there were talking about.

In contrast, I have to say, the Home Office’s team didn’t really seem to me to know quite what they were on about. As long as the ruling party or the dominant parties are opposed to certain anti-slavery as well as anti-trafficking provisions, such as the key one of ensuring that migrant domestics are able to change their employer, they pass as many Modern Slavery Acts as they like but ultimately there are facilitating slavery and exploitation.

I can’t think of any possible moral or other justification for not going back to the reforms of the late 1990s, when migrant domestic workers were allowed to change employers. That didn’t put an end to all exploitation of migrant domestic workers. That’s one of the problems, that goes on. But at the moment we have come back to the stone age, as it were, we have gone back to a pre-Wilberforce stage where the UK’s own legislation appears to favour exploitation and abuse of migrant workers.

‘The salve the stops us needing a solution’

I think it's institutions such as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority that have the best potential to come up with meaningful definitions of what the problem is. The problem is not forced labour as defined by the ILO 1930 Convention or trafficking as defined by the 2000 UN Palermo Protocol. It’s to do with very nasty forms of exploitation of workers, which enable employers in effect to under pay or not to pay, to get more overtime than it is justifiable, and to ruin people’s lives in a nasty way. The solution requires a holistic approach to a whole hold sector which is an important key to the United Kingdom’s economic growth, and which legislators therefore don’t want to impede.

I don’t think either the trafficking paradigm or the modern slavery paradigm really help us get to the solutions. They don’t even get us to a halfway house, or a quarter-way house, and perhaps in some ways there are intended be the salve that stops us needing to find a solution. I don’t know what’s the motivation of some of the people that are now being called philanthro-capitalists to get involved in the anti-slavery work – I suspect their motivation is excellent. But in a way looks as though those that are profiting most from fairly unrestrained capitalism are keen to see the worst forms exploitation addressed without the slightly less bad forms of exploitation being addressed.

At the moment most of the terminology, most of the thoughts that go into anti-trafficking or anti-slavery provisions are crude, aren’t they? They certainly aren’t trying to do anything to help people who want to move from one country to another. Those who can’t possibly get a loan from the formal sector from the banking sector to do so, and who therefore have to take loans and thus end up routinely in debt bondage. To consider all those people as slaves and to describe them as slaves – I suspect that’s not what they really want and certainly some of them who have talked to me say that is not what they want.

State responsibility

We need, always, better research than we are getting on what’s happening in terms of exploitation. To track collateral damage, we need much better research on the impact of all sorts of changes: legislative changes, changes related to protection, changes related to the labour market whether its visa regimes or other labour market legislation.

We haven’t seen nearly enough attention to monitoring the way that the early stages of identification are carried out. Whether it’s of trafficked people, forced labour, exploitation for prostitution, whatever it is – it’s that early stage that is not just the weak link but the absent link, because often it’s not clear which government agency is responsible. When it is clear, it turns out the agency’s agents don’t know how to do it; or don’t have a mandate to do it; or don’t do it; or don’t have a bicycle to get on to cycle down and look. There are all sorts of things that require monitoring and advocacy in order to make protection a priority, and that’s certainly a need in UK as it is elsewhere. This is the problem, I suppose, with the trafficking protocol: government and state responsibility for trafficking are systematically denied by the trafficking protocol and therefore aren’t addressed and that’s a major problem.

Full interview


Duration: 01:27:32

Listen to Michael Dottridge’s full interview here for rich insights into numerous aspects of the anti-trafficking debates—the pre-history of the problem of ‘trafficking’, his experiences at Anti-Slavery International, the negotiation of the Palermo Protocol and its enforcement over the past 15 years, the various strategies that could be used to counter trafficking, legislative trends, missed opportunities and unexpected wins of MSA and much more.

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