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How the idea of ‘modern slavery’ is used as political click bait

There has been an explosion of interest in modern slavery and human trafficking in recent years. Figures such as British prime minister Theresa May, UN secretary general Antonio Gutteras and Pope Francis have come together to fight against this “scourge”.

Awareness campaigns are part and parcel of this initiative. Anti-Slavery Day, for example, has been held every year on October 18 since 2010. The day is an opportunity to “raise awareness of human trafficking and modern slavery, and encourage government, local authorities, companies, charities and individuals to do what they can to address the problem”.

The introduction of this national day is seen as a positive step by many. But to me, it sums up the major flaws of the contemporary anti-slavery movement. The problem? That the aim is to raise awareness. This may seem a controversial statement. What better way to tackle contemporary slavery than through awareness raising campaigns?

But two issues arise here. First, there is no evidence to demonstrate that awareness raising campaigns reduce human trafficking and modern slavery. Second, the campaigns themselves can be counterproductive. Awareness raising campaigns do little more than provide a good feeling for those who answer the call to combat modern slavery. They serve as a deflection from developing real alternatives to combating exploitation and the global inequalities and injustices many people currently face.

Click bait

The click bait power of slavery and human trafficking, often encouraged by sensationalist headlines such as “victims branded like cattle”, operates to obscure real problems. This is tied up with how we label people. People entering the UK illegally, for example, are characterised as one of two types: either they are seen as undesirable migrants, or else as victims of slavery. Our use of such labels – “slave”, “trafficking victim”, “refugee”, “migrant” – highlights our need to distinguish between those who deserve protection and those who don’t.

Rudyard Kipling, 15 June 1895. Wikimedia Commons

Echoing Rudyard Kipling’s sentiment in “The White Man’s Burden”, the anti-slavery movement charges those from superior cultures with the “civilising mission” that Kipling mandated in the 20th century. It is the continued use of the idea of slavery to invoke an emotive response that is the issue here. Such a conception promotes overly simplistic solutions – such as awareness raising campaigns. The discourse distorts our perceptions of labour, exploitation and inequality by calling for us to “free the slaves” without recognising that this concept blames the perpetuation of slavery on the “toxicity of certain cultures”, evoking Western imperialism and endorsing Kipling’s sentiment.

Historically, the UK has seen itself as a leader of the anti-slavery movement, frequently placing itself at the heart of abolitionist campaigns since William Wilberforce. The idea of the UK as a leader of the free world when it comes to combating slavery still holds today. The introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, for example, was heralded as an “international benchmark to which other jurisdictions aspire”.

But such rhetoric can be seen as hypocritical. May, for example, has promoted the fight against slavery whilst seeking to “take back control” of national borders, reluctant to assist refugees fleeing conflict zones (in early 2017, the Home Office axed the Dubs scheme after bringing in only 350 of the 3,000 child refugees who had been promised help). Perhaps these are not the right kind of victim for the government to be rescuing while it fears the growth in popularity of the far right’s views on immigration and potential public backlash.

Slavery sells

The fact remains that promising to tackle slavery sells (attracting votes, funding, publicity, celebrity endorsement). The UK government has pledged millions towards fighting modern slavery on the one hand while implementing lethal immigration policies on the other. This focus upon the evil slavers and human traffickers deflects from the role of the state in preserving the global system which allows exploitation to occur. The fascination with labels, rescue and filtering out of deserving and undeserving victims must end.

This contemporary abolitionist movement promotes a powerful discourse with a far-reaching appeal to humanitarian feeling. But its language and imagery exploits the legacy of trans-atlantic slavery, focusing upon “evil slavers” or “traffickers” to be caught and punished, configuring women and children as perpetual victims awaiting rescue. In reality, the criminalisation of human trafficking has more to do with statist control of borders and labelling people as deserving or undeserving victims, than it does with our historical understanding of slavery.

So, what is the alternative? We need to move beyond the language of slavery and trafficking, as those terms have become unhelpful. In line with this, funding needs to veer away from programmes which focus upon awareness raising and rescuing of “victims”. Funding should instead be channelled towards developing viable safe migration options and educational programmes that advance the recognition of western privilege and outlooks, cultural imperialism and the current global order.

The most important step is to give those classified as “modern slaves” a voice, and to listen.

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