It is one of the duplicities of the current times that whilst the Black Lives Matter movement has rightly highlighted the racist exploitation of the transatlantic slave trade, we live in a global era of increasing generalised exploitation, which has a disproportionate effect on migrant and Global South populations. The abolition of the legal ownership of one human being by another was replaced by other equally abhorrent mechanisms of severe exploitation.
In the same way, the current focus by Governments on the abolition of modern slavery and trafficking, hides and diverts attention from other forms of severe exploitation, exemplified by low-wages, insecure work and the lack of opportunities for improvement and justifies the tightening of racist immigration controls. This is the central theme of a much needed and well-researched book, entitled The Truth About Modern Slavery by Emily Kenway, formerly in the office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, published in January 2021.
This duplicity is nothing new. The transatlantic slave trade triggers a range of associated meanings in our minds, including shackles, boats, racial oppression, lack of freedom, beatings and cruelty. Modern slavery, a term that in law, includes forced labour, human trafficking, servitude and slavery, piggybacks and draws a connection with the two, so that we sit up and pay attention. Indeed, the association has often been invoked by the new abolitionists of modern slavery, including Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, at the time of the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA).
However, the sad reality is that the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade spurred indentured slavery and forced apprenticeships, which are precisely the kinds of severe exploitation the anti-modern slavery movement now attempts to tackle, whilst harking back to abolitionists such a William Wilberforce for inspiration. As Kenway notes, modern slavery is anything but modern. The modern slavery frame constructed by States and companies, allows them to characterise modern slavery as an apolitical, exceptional, aberration in order not only to hide, but also produce legitimacy for the very policies, such as immigration control, that enable severe exploitation in the first place. In that way, it is all our responsibility to rid the world of it, whilst allowing the severe exploitation at the heart of the present socio-economic system to carry on as normal.
Kenway is at pains to re-iterate that this critique does not undermine the genuine motivations of thousands across the world who are actively campaigning against modern slavery. Nor does it refute the fact that legislation such as the MSA has some positive effects, not least in making the law around forms of exploitation more coherent. However, the evidence she cites in her book is persuasive of her critique of the modern slavery frame.
Why she asks, would in 2015 the year in which the MSA was brought into law, would only 12 percent of those officially recognised as modern slavery victims be given a right to remain in the UK. Why are certain types of modern slavery, for instance sex work and instances of cannabis cultivation criminalised? Why does the MSA not require mandatory human rights due diligence, which would mean that companies actually have to perform extensive investigations into their supply chains to ensure there aren’t adverse human rights impacts and to address them when they find them?
It’s hard to argue against the fact that proper human rights due diligence, with the involvement of unions, could well avoid exploitative situations such as those in the Leicester garment factories. Here the majority of workers were found to be paid below the minimum wage, did not have employment contracts and were subject to excessive working hours and poor health and safety conditions. Most of those working in the Leicester garment factories were migrants. This also supports Kenway’s view that the strengthening of immigration control, such as Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ prevents migrant workers from seeking help safely when they experience exploitation. In the worst cases, such as the 39 Vietnamese nationals that died in the back of a lorry in October 2019, those policies can also lead to death.
The conclusions of the book are that modern slavery is part of a continuum of exploitation that are products of the political economy in which we live. In tackling the parts, and in many cases failing to do even that, you are deflected from tackling its root causes. We need to understand and reform the whole, and a number of recommendations flowing from the preceding evidence are provided.
The Covid pandemic means that there is, and will be, more instances of severe exploitation. How then will these recommendations and others be implemented by Governments who are wilfully failing to tackle such exploitation? Movements for reform are centred around specific demands from which other wider demands, including political demands, can then emerge. It is a redemptive process, in which all sectors including, state, business, workers and consumers must be involved. The truth about modern slavery is that its abolition should not be the end in itself. However, by campaigning for its end and critiquing the modern slavery framework, it can provide a platform on which to highlight the wider exploitation in the world in which we live.
You can order Emily Kenway’s The Truth About Modern Slavery (Pluto Books) here