Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

People power to end exploitation?

‘Modern slavery’ sits at the crossroads of racism, patriarchy, and growing inequality. So how do we end it?

Mika Leandro
3 December 2020, 10.11am
"Walk For Freedom" 2019 in Berlin.
Christoph Soeder/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

What is the best way to achieve meaningful change and advance social justice? Is it working for governments, where power is concentrated? Or in campaigning organisations, which can leverage popular pressure? What of the media, where your reach is wide? Or academia, where you can speak truth to power? These are hotly debated questions and simple answers are hard to come by. Each has its merits, and most have their drawbacks.

I have been a professional campaigner for a long time. I currently work for WeMove Europe, which seeks to build people power to transform Europe for future generations and our planet. Prior to that I was campaigns director for Walk Free – the ‘movement to end modern slavery’, an influential player in the anti-slavery field. In this piece, I aim to reflect on certain key, behind-the-scenes considerations underpinning strategic choices for organisations like those I have worked for, which attempt to harness people power via online mobilisation and offline organising. I want to be open about what we do and why, so as to contribute to a wider conversation about how we and our allies might do things better.

Key questions for digital campaigners

These are the questions we ask ourselves when conceiving, planning, and managing campaigns.

1) What is ‘political’ for people? What is in the media? What are people talking about in cafes and bars? These questions are vital for mass mobilisation campaigning organisations. People taking collective action is where our power lies, and we know that people are more likely to take action when there is energy around an issue. This means that we have to feel the pulse of popular sentiment and adapt to it. For example, at WeMove we are currently running a campaign in support of Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) – a regular income for everyone regardless of how poor they are.

With the coronavirus pandemic and so many struggling to make ends meet, this idea, which was once too radical to touch, has now become popular and suddenly people are interested. We can feel a pulse there and our campaign at WeMove seeks to quicken it. But that’s new. When I worked at Walk Free seven years ago, a researcher approached me about running a UBI campaign. I liked it and was sympathetic, but at that time it wasn’t going to work because it just didn’t have the traction. Linking the campaigns we run to what has public traction puts constraints on what we are able to do.

Mass mobilising around systemic change is hard because the moments where public attention makes mass mobilisation so effective rarely last.

2) What needs to change? When planning a campaign, we have to ask ourselves, ‘will it challenge the system? Will it address the root causes of the problem?’ We ask ourselves, ‘how can we make sure that the campaigns we’re running don’t just lead to incremental change within a system that isn’t working, or even worse, content ourselves with only stopping bad things from happening?’ What we want are campaigns that address root causes, so we ask ourselves whether winning a particular campaign will be a stepping stone forwards or create a leverage point that will help us achieve bigger change.

The UBI example is again relevant here. As I see it, this campaign is for truly systemic change; it seeks to challenge the current capitalist system, inequality, and our relationship to work. UBI can help tackle poverty (and the severe exploitation that is related to it) by removing many of the barriers to qualify for financial support. But it can also drive wellbeing by giving people the economic breathing space to further their education, volunteer locally, escape an abusive relationship, or just feel a little less anxious about the future.

But of course, not all campaigns are so clear cut and there’s often serious internal debate about whether a particular idea will get to the core of the issue or not. It’s hard to know if you’re on the right track because systemic change takes time. You don’t see impact immediately, you have to trust your gut, and you have to let go of your obsession with quick metrics. Mass mobilising around systemic change is also hard because the moments where public attention makes mass mobilisation so effective rarely last. The news cycle moves on and momentum dies down, even though you’re nowhere near your goal yet. An organisation’s approach also depends on the perspectives and analyses of those in the room. At Walk Free, for example, the content and even merits of systemic change were viewed differently to where I am right now.

3) What are the opportunities? What can be changed in this present moment? How? And can mass action on the part of the community of people we mobilise make a difference that contributes to it? These are central questions for campaigners, because if our actions can’t help bring about the change we desire then we are probably not the best placed to take on this particular challenge. People power is, after all, our added value. And the key thing to remember is that different historical moments present different opportunities for mobilisation and change. Right now, the pandemic has opened a space for profound change. Ideas that seemed impossible suddenly don’t seem so radical. We are at a unique point in history with a major crisis on our hands – that’s an opportunity to bring about progress.

Process and its pitfalls

People working in digital mass mobilisation organisations like me get used to critics saying that petitions don’t make a difference, or that the scale of the problem is insurmountable, or that campaigns sensationalise and simplify complex issues. In doing what we do, there are a variety of steps we take that don’t always make sense when viewed in isolation so I’ll discuss some of them to make our tactical choices clearer.

1) ‘Petitions don’t make any real difference; they just make the people who sign them feel better’. It’s true that petitions on their own rarely make a difference: decision makers need to be on board to achieve change. They do have their uses though. Petitions can help build pressure to get a decision maker to change their position, or they can support a decision maker who has decided to do something but needs to show public backing for it. They are usually just one step in a wider campaign. In the end, they ‘work’ only when they are part of something broader, with allies and ordinary people putting pressure on decision makers in a variety of ways.

We are very conscious of the need to shift narratives, because ultimately, she who controls the narrative wins.

2) ‘The campaigns you run are too narrowly focused compared to the scale of the issue. You focus on one person, rather than on the system’. A good example of this was the campaign I worked on at Walk Free to free the anti-slavery activist Andy Hall. He had been sued by the Thai pineapple company Natural Fruit and arrested following his investigation into forced labour among migrant workers in Thailand in 2013. Our campaign was to get him released. But the idea wasn’t only to help him as an individual. Andy Hall could have simply evaded by exercising his privilege and returning to the UK, but his priority was to make a stand for migrant workers at whatever personal cost, and he stayed there for years fighting. We knew that telling a personal story which our supporters could relate to would allow us to tell a broader story that may not otherwise have been heard – in this case of forced labour in Thailand, which went on to become a major international issue.

Of course, there are serious drawbacks to this approach. In this particular case, you have to ask whether it was the best idea to tell a story of a relatively wealthy white person to other relatively wealthy, mostly white people in the hopes of catalysing action on an issue primarily affecting poor people of colour. We were arguably complicit in reinforcing orientalist ideas and I learned a lot from our decisions. Thankfully, more and more organisations are reflecting seriously about what they depict in their campaigns, why, and how.

3) ‘You sensationalise and over-simplify’. Sometimes digital campaigning organisations act too fast; sometimes we test for content that inspires people and, in the process, use frames and narratives that are problematic. You see this with ‘modern slavery’ and with many other issues. Our aim is to tell engaging stories that motivate people without reinforcing problematic messaging. That is a hard balance to strike and we don’t always get it right.

That doesn’t mean we’re not trying. During the campaign design process a team will have serious internal conversations about how to minimise the risks, they will have their content reviewed by experts, and try to find a framing and narrative that points towards systemic change. At WeMove, where we campaign on the EU level, we’re frequently told that we’re being overly complicated. We don’t try to excessively dumb down what is happening in Europe. We do try to relate it to people’s own experiences. And we are very conscious of the need to shift narratives, because ultimately, she who controls the narrative wins.

In the end, when I ask myself how we can best end exploitation, it is clear that people taking action together towards systemic change and changing the narrative is key. But there is no way we can achieve change in a silo. Truly meaningful change only happens when people mobilise, the media tells the story broadly and helps share the new narrative, academia proposes alternatives, and government listens and acts. Change is hard. That’s why it’s so important for different actors to understand each other better and work together. We are all part of the same ecosystem and right now, in this moment of history, we all need each other more than ever.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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