Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The path to the UK's Modern Slavery Act 2015: an oral history project

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, 2015 was hotly debated by policy-shapers during the drafting process. We take a behind-the-scenes look at one of last year’s most contentious bills.

Prabha Kotiswaran
25 September 2016


Chris/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

It has now been eighteen months since the Modern Slavery Act, 2015 was passed. A legislation rushed into place with an eye to the May 2015 general elections, the act was widely perceived as a legislative ‘legacy’ of the Conservative government. In the months leading up to the passage of the act, several provisions of the Modern Slavery Bill proved to be controversial. Particularly, civil society actors – for whom victims’ rights were paramount – were concerned that the rhetoric of modern slavery would be used primarily to further a highly carceral piece of legislation.

Under these circumstances, how did civil society actors engage with the government as it set forth to pass the Modern Slavery Act, 2015? What were the institutional venues for such engagement? What were the less visible venues for such engagement? What political opportunities did these groups and actors see? How did they optimise these possibilities? What gains could they score? Who were their allies? What losses did they face? Were these anticipated? What were the intended and unintended consequences of the act? When the chips have fallen, how should we engage with the government? How should we pursue the meaningful enforcement of the Modern Slavery Act in the future? What are the possibilities for future amendments? How can these be achieved? What other similar models of law reform in other countries or other contexts can activists hope to draw on?

The MSA oral history project is a way of using the Modern Slavery Act, 2015 as a case study for gaining a realistic understanding of how the contemporary anti-trafficking discourse has become deeply entrenched in the public psyche.

In what is an undoubtedly fast-changing policy landscape relating to trafficking, forced labour and ‘modern slavery’, the MSA oral history project is a way of using the Modern Slavery Act, 2015 as a case study for gaining a realistic understanding of how the contemporary anti-trafficking discourse has become deeply entrenched in the public psyche. Analysing it can also shed light on how we might reconfigure this discourse to go beyond rhetorical piety and achieve greater social and economic justice for vulnerable domestic and migrant workers under conditions of global capitalism.

This initiative is timely for several reasons. Barrister James Ewin submitted his independent review of the Overseas Domestic Workers Visa in December 2015. Baroness Young of Hornsey has proposed a private member’s bill in parliament calling for slavery reports by government agencies, mandatory due diligence reports in government contracts, and the publication of a list of companies subject to the reporting requirements under the MSA. Meanwhile, the government has itself commissioned an audit of the first year of implementation of the MSA conducted by Caroline Haughey, a barrister.

Theresa May, the British prime minister, was a key architect of the MSA, and she has recently announced £33 million for an ‘international fund for modern slavery’ and the setting up of an inter-ministerial task force on modern slavery. Meanwhile we are beginning to appreciate the ramifications of the Immigration Act, 2016 for victims of trafficking and severely exploited persons.

In short, understanding the history of how the MSA came to be is crucial for shaping its future trajectory. Our BTS oral history of the MSA is one step towards demystifying for experts, lay persons and committed citizens alike the processes of law reform that lead to the passage of key legislations in the UK today.

Over the next week, BTS will feature interviews from experts, many of whom were key players in the negotiation of the MSA. They include Cindy Berman (Ethical Trading Initiative), Michael Dottridge (Trustee of the UN Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery), Caroline Robinson (Focus on Labour Exploitation), Kate Roberts (Human Trafficking Foundation), Vicky Brotherton (Anti-Slavery International) and Peter Ramsay (Reader in Criminal Law, Law Department, London School of Economics).

I would like to thank Laura Lazaro Cabrera and Olivia Rosenström for all of their help in putting together this series. Additionally, the support of the Leverhulme Trust (Award Number PLP-2014-387) in making this research possible is gratefully acknowledged.

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