Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The UK Modern Slavery Act: more for the ‘saviours’ than the ‘saved’

As the UK Modern Slavery Act turns four years old, we ask why the government still refuses to speak to workers about the effects of its policies.

Caroline Robinson
28 March 2019
Lars Plougmann/Flickr. CC (BY-SA)

“Whose reality counts?” the author and professor of development Robert Chambers once asked. His reflections on participation should be incorporated into all areas of public policy. This past Tuesday the UK Modern Slavery Act turned four. When we consider what has been achieved, we must ask that question again: whose reality counts?

The carers, construction workers, fishers, cleaners, and the couriers, the outsourced and gig economy workers hold the key to understanding whether the UK can ever hope to ‘lead the world’ in its efforts to combat ‘modern slavery’. Yet whilst the UK National Audit Office estimates the government has spent “in excess of £100 million” to date on its modern slavery response, very little if any of this huge sum has been used to engage with those who have direct experience of navigating the risks of exploitation in the UK labour market. As the UK response to ‘modern slavery’ comes under intense scrutiny, and as parliamentarians, government agencies and experts ask why so little has been achieved, it has never been more important to flip the model on its head and put the voices and views of workers first.

Deliberately looking the other way

During the passage of the Modern Slavery Act through parliament, politicians across political divides invoked the spirit of William Wilberforce. The Conservative MP Tracy Crouch rallied the chamber by saying, “With Wilberforce’s legacy in mind, we as a nation should be taking the lead across Europe and the rest of the world.” It is significant that Wilberforce’s brand of abolitionism was regularly invoked in order to further the ‘modern slavery’ agenda. The common thread between Wilberforce’s views and the approach adopted by the government to ‘modern slavery’ is a singular focus on what the abolitionists want, whilst overlooking the needs and desires of those on whose behalf the laws and policies are written. Wilberforce’s “reservations about the capacity of enslaved Africans and their descendants to exercise freedom” and his view of trade unions as a “general disease in our society” show how deeply he considered the divide between himself and those he sought to emancipate.

The ‘fight against modern slavery’ has bypassed those leading the resistance at the grassroots level today.

The practical impact of deifying white saviours while simultaneously writing out of history the “crucial role of slaves and ex-slaves in challenging historical slave systems” has been that the ‘fight against modern slavery’ has bypassed those leading the resistance at the grassroots level today. The space for worker voice and participation in guiding modern slavery responses has been limited at best.

Simple reflection on the impact of laws and policies on workers and their risk of ‘modern slavery’ has been strongly resisted by the Home Office. For example, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), my own organisation, has spent four years calling for an assessment of the impact of the government’s ‘offence of illegal working’ on the likelihood of exploited workers coming forward. Earlier this month, Caroline Nokes, the minister of state for immigration, confirmed that there has still been no evaluation of the ‘offence of illegal working’ for its impact on victims of trafficking. In practical terms this means that the Home Office has not spoken to a single undocumented worker about the effect of the policy, despite the threat it poses to the success of its ‘modern slavery’ strategy.

Hollowing out of worker representation

Rather than inviting participation from those most affected by ‘modern slavery’, the UK has instead sought to limit the opportunities for worker engagement in modern slavery decision-making. Take the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA), which calls itself the ‘anti-slavery police’, and has for its mission “working in partnership to protect vulnerable and exploited workers”. In 2014, at the height of the Modern Slavery Bill debate, the GLAA had its 29-strong board, including 19 representative members, reduced to nine through secondary legislation. The GLAA Board has been left without a single trade union representative, where previously trade unions had three full board members plus observers.

Or take the new seasonal workers pilot scheme, a temporary migration programme for the agricultural sector. The pilot was designed in haste, with no consultation with insecure workers, nor worker representatives. There are no plans to engage workers, trade unions or NGOs in oversight and evaluation of the pilot, and yet the risks of debt bondage and a range of other labour abuses are huge.

There is clearly a strong need for insecure and at-risk workers to claim spaces for power in the UK ‘modern slavery’ response. Organisations like the Voice of Domestic Workers know this, a London-based, self-organised group of domestic workers who facilitate worker socialising and strategising through which they claim power from their employers and the state.

FLEX, meanwhile, works to set up bridges to worker participation. The Labour Exploitation Advisory Group is made up of nine organisations serving those at risk of abuse and exploitation, with whom we take joint policy positions and which serves to hold us to account. We’ve also been developing increasingly participatory research methodologies, not only to help guide our work but also to challenge our power and position. Worker participation should not be the means to the end, nor as is so often the case in the anti-trafficking world, the legitimacy behind our advocacy. We need to continuously work to ensure that the process, the method by which we seek to understand and to form our positions, is participatory and the people with the least opportunity to speak are heard.

Alternative approaches to modern slavery

Within the UK, approaches to tackling labour exploitation are steadily diverging. In Scotland, there are significant moves to promote worker participation in setting and upholding workplace standards. The ‘Fair Work Convention’ was established in 2015 following the recommendations of an independent review of “progressive workplace policies in Scotland”, which considered opportunities to promote collective bargaining and democracy in workplaces. The Fair Work Convention acts as an independent advisory body, is comprised of trade union and industry representatives, and seeks, amongst other objectives, to promote individual and collective worker voice. Last month, in response to the Fair Work Convention, the Scottish minister for business fair work and skills, Jamie Hepburn MSP, launched Scotland’s Fair Work Action Plan, which includes a focus on funding and supporting trade unions and promoting collective bargaining. This approach sets an example for politicians at Westminster if they are serious about taking the lead on ‘modern slavery’.

The question of whose reality counts is not one to be taken lightly, or to be easily solved. All of us in this sector, myself included, are guilty of drawing on our last encounter with a trafficked person or our last conversation with someone who has faced severe labour abuse in forming our positions and arguments. The challenge to the modern slavery agenda is clear. Firstly policy makers must be persuaded to invite those most affected by ‘modern slavery’ responses into decision making spaces. Secondly, those of us who occupy such spaces must reflect on our own position in establishing or reinforcing hierarchies of power. If there is one ‘silver bullet’ in the ‘modern slavery’ space to which I can subscribe, it’s this: the fight against labour abuse and exploitation will only be won once workers are heard.

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