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December 6, 2019

Modern slavery


December 6, 2019

Recent years have seen a huge increase in public, political and media attention focused on "modern slavery". Widely decried as a contemporary evil that affects all societies, "modern slavery" is understood to be a situation in which a person is exploited, forced to work, and unable to walk away from their circumstances. It is typically understood as analogous to terms like "human trafficking" or "forced labour" and essentially as being "unfree".

Over the past three decades, the number of institutions involved in the fight against this unfreedom has mushroomed, from a handful in the early 1990s to many hundreds today. In addition, governments the world over have passed domestic anti-slavery legislation, collectively committing to eradicate slavery as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Millions of dollars have been spent annually by governments, NGOs and international agencies on anti-slavery policies, while media outlets have provided continued, often sensationalist, coverage of the issue.

Despite this, major criticisms exist both of the concept of modern slavery and the way in which policymakers tend to address it. Scholars have pointed out that in practice many people find themselves in circumstances that might fit the definition of modern slavery, yet are not identified as "modern slaves".

Among the people who are "unable to run away", there are women in abusive relationships who cannot leave because of poverty and patriarchy, migrants stuck in European detention facilities, and migrant workers in the United States who, because of the threat of deportation, remain effectively trapped in exploitative employment.

So, who decides who is a "modern slave"?

"Modern slavery", as a concept, is a recent Euro-American invention. It sprang up in the 1990s among neo-abolitionist NGOs which found it to be an effective and attractive tool for spreading their message and raising funds.

Mainstream thinking around modern slavery tends to selectively apply a sentimental lens of concern along lines that are unreflexively white, liberal, and middle class. It constructs certain non-Western phenomena as problematic (such as the survival work done by poor children in much of the Global South) while excluding from concern Western phenomena (such as migrant detention centres) which are arguably equally or even more troublesome.

Such thinking remains trapped in a limiting liberal paradigm, whereby "freedom" is understood as the absence of (primarily physical) individual coercion. That is to say, in this liberal Western world view, I am free to the extent that no one compels me to do something against my will and unfree to the extent that the opposite applies.

Excerpted from: 'Modern slavery policy does not set people free'.

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