Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Possible futures…beyond trafficking and slavery

BTS turns one and begins a project on what the future could look like. Join us to explore utopian horizons, examples of ‘better practice’, and new ways of researching and representing exploitation.

BTS Editorial Team
4 November 2015

Jan Tik/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Twelve months ago, we set ourselves the task of becoming ‘an alternative to the many “modern-day slavery hubs” dotted across the conventional media.’ Years of work and research in the ‘anti-slavery’ and ‘anti-trafficking’ fields had shown us just how great the need for this was. The media landscape was dominated by shallow, sensationalist reporting; the politics rarely ever better than anodyne. ‘Our editors will marshal the best of contemporary scholarship’, we promised, ‘to provide informed, nuanced, and focused analysis’. We wanted to insert structural critique where previously there had been too little and challenge the mis- and dis-information disseminated by the economically and socially powerful, who have a stake in maintaining the status quo.  

We knew there was going to be a lot to say, but even we have been surprised by the sheer number of scholars waiting for an outlet such as Beyond Trafficking and Slavery (BTS) to emerge. Just one year later, we’ve published over 180 articles by nearly as many authors from dozens of different countries. These we’ve grouped into major themes, organising them into the world’s first freely available public e-syllabus on forced labour, trafficking and slavery. We will release the complete BTS Short Course this December as a nine-volume, 900-page series of open access e-books replete with the observations of some of the sharpest minds in the field. We hope that this will become an invaluable resource to students, teachers, activists and concerned citizens.

The critical voices of BTS have never been more necessary. Over the past twelve months we’ve seen the passing of the UK’s Modern Slavery Bill (now Act), which includes provisions lambasted by scholars and civil society alike as the opposite of genuine worker protection. We’ve witnessed massive, bitter, and at times highly regressive struggle against Amnesty International’s decision to adopt a ‘legalisation strategy’ for the better protection of the world’s sex workers. And we have, on the agenda, a historic initiative by the International Labour Organisation to create a regime of global supply-chain governance fit for the 21st century—which big business is already trying to water down.   

Launching ‘possible futures’

Our past year has been an almost unrelenting critique of where we find ourselves today. From now until the end of March, however, we want to focus less on what is ‘wrong’ with the status quo and more on what could be better about its alternatives. During these months, we’ll feature articles that are ‘positive’ without being prescriptive, and that point to the many ways that creative, political minds think we might move ‘beyond trafficking and slavery’.

In pushing in this new direction, it’s important that we make certain basics clear. We do not think we have all the answers, nor is what we present a blueprint for the perfect world. We will refrain from providing ‘better’ answers to many of the most commonly asked questions, as any reader of BTS will know that we are highly critical of these questions and the definitions underlying them in the first place. We do not intend to offer advice on how to ‘solve’ what we see as the wrong problems.

Rather, we will attempt a situated critique of that which is from the perspective of that which could be. We invite you to accompany us on this journey and to help us disentangle the many overlapping injustices commonly collapsed into the terms ‘trafficking’, ‘slavery’ and ‘forced labour’. It will require much lateral and often radical thinking to confront the many ways domination and exploitation currently shape our world, as well as an absolute rejection of one-size-fits-all solutions. Progressive change will only be achieved through a nuanced understanding of the specific and varied contexts in which exploitation takes place. Above all, building a better future will require us to loudly and proudly bring the emancipatory horizon back into view.

Our work over these coming months will be divided into three overlapping strands of content, all under the banner of ‘Possible Futures’. The first, Imagining Freedom, is our ‘utopian’ strand. It begins with the premise that utopian thinking is a prerequisite for any progressive political struggle. Though we are often told that one must be ‘realistic’ and that ‘there is no alternative’ to our current system, we believe that our current reality always contains the possibility of something different, something better. As Ernst Bloch famously argued in The Principle of Hope, “The Real is process…[it is] the mediation between present, unfinished past, and above all: possible future”. Progressive thinking must begin from this eminently realistic basis, critiquing the today from the perspective of the emancipatory horizon of tomorrow, towards which we always have to work. In terms of trafficking and slavery, our authors will imagine worlds beyond the domination and exploitation currently organised along lines of race, class, gender, generation and nation.

 Case Studies & Critiques, our second strand, is what many will call our most ‘practical’—the ‘realistic’ accompaniment to our utopianism. It will feature real-world examples of ‘better practice’ policies, projects, and campaigns. These will be presented as neither generalizable panaceas nor as ‘the best that we can hope for’, but rather as snapshots of situated realities and progressive efforts that are better than the dominant fare. These should never be considered the end-point, even if they are currently ‘best practice’, but rather as way-stations on the road toward the horizons our utopians have imagined.

Finally, Research & Representations will address two of the major issues at the heart of how trafficking and slavery are understood today: how to produce better quality data and research, and how to improve popular writing and images about these problems. This strand will feature cutting-edge thinking on how we conduct innovative, high-quality research on the causes, consequences, and experiences of severe exploitation and domination. It will also offer some practical guidelines for NGOs, activists, and journalists on how to most respectfully and accurately represent both exploitation and the exploited in the media.

We look forward to you joining us!

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