Summary: In spite of the self congratulations by politicians regarding their stance on slavery, muddled government policies on trafficking, migration and labour rights render those vulnerable to slavery at continuing risk of abuse and exploitation.
October is usually a month filled with noise on “modern” slavery. It has been thus for over a decade now. Since 2007, 18th October has been designated the EU Anti-Trafficking Day and in 2010 the made it its UK Anti-Slavery Day. Organisations that work on the issue throughout the year tend to use the day to highlight campaigns, while politicians usually search for a photo op. In 2020 photo ops are not really possible as events are largely held online.
As, in Europe at least, we are not busy flying from conference to a conference this October 2020 should be a reminder that the international community has been trying to deal with the issue for a long time. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the ILO Forced Labour Convention; 20 years since the UN “Palermo Protocol”, 15 years since the Council of Europe Trafficking Convention, and six years since the ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol. Importantly, it has also been 70 years since the European Convention on Human Rights was first introduced, prohibiting forced labour and slavery.
When I first started working on trafficking 20 years ago, convincing governments that trafficking exists was a challenge. Later the task was to persuade them that trafficking for forced labour was an issue. Today, the level of awareness and the number of people that work on the issue are unprecedented, at least since the heights of the anti-slavery struggle in the 19th Century. Dedicated funds exist, as do masters courses. Trafficking and modern slavery are for all intents and purposes talked about as serious problems of our times. Some could see this as the ultimate success of campaigns and advocacy of 1990’s and 00’s.
Yet, we are far from being able to declare success.
Human trafficking and people smuggling are still confused and used as interchangeable terms by media and politicians, reflecting muddled and often contradictory policy on these matters. This is despite that the above mentioned two “Palermo Protocols” distinguishes between trafficking – the rendering someone into a situation of exploitation and a crime against a person, and smuggling – the facilitation of clandestine crossing of international borders and a crime against the state.
With the exception of a few specialist journalists, such as Kieran Guilbert and dedicated projects like the ones by the Guardian and Thompson Reuters Foundation, much of the reporting on human trafficking remains flat and simplistic.
For the most part, policies designed to deal with modern slavery fail to engage with the difficult questions about underlying causes that are deeply embedded in our political economies. Civil society is increasingly rendered into the role of a service provider, gagged through government contract and prevented from acting as critical friend holding government to account. There is a dearth intersectional analysis examining how policies and actions by governments and sometimes also NGOs perpetuate the very circumstances that lead to exploitation.
Collateral Damage was the title of a report published in 2007 by the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. The publication reflected on the previous decade of anti-trafficking efforts and how these impacted on the rights of trafficked women. The title was chosen as it summed up well what we found – that peoples’ rights were often the casualty of anti-trafficking efforts.
Collateral damage is felt by trafficked people. For many, getting out of a situation of exploitation does not lead to “freedom”, but to a different kind of unfreedom. A trajectory from being enslaved to being processed by authorities, detained, disbelieved, deported, faced with destitution, debt and an uphill struggle to show that they are deserving victims.
Since 2007, laws have changed and arguably there have been some improvements in the way countries and civil society organisations respond. Trafficking for forced labour is now a strong focus and businesses are a key stakeholder in anti-slavery efforts. Yet I am struck that the overall argument of that report still stands and systemic failures described in it remain.
Let’s look at the UK for example. In 2007 I wrote in a chapter examining the UK’s response: “…. the authorities seemed to have failed to assess the implications that migration and labour market polices have for trafficking and on the vulnerability of certain groups to being trafficked.”
This statement rings true in 2020. In fact, I would argue that the implications of those policies are likely to be more significant today that they were in 2007.
Hostile environment has been a flagship UK policy for almost a decade now. The policy was designed to make the UK unwelcoming to migrants who do not have regular status in the country. Consequently, anyone who cannot immediately show their right to be here should be viewed with suspicion. Anti-migrant rhetoric and government campaigns such as the infamous go-home vans and vilification of lawyers have led to irregular migrants being labelled as criminals. At the same time, most victims of modern slavery in the UK are migrants. The Home Office is the department in charge of both policies – one that is designed to remove as many foreigners as swiftly as possible, and the modern slavery strategy that is meant to provide victims with a recovery and reflection period, including a temporary permission to stay in the UK. The conflict between these two policies is glaring. Nevertheless, one would search in vain to find a recognition by the government that this contradiction exists. A new report by ECPAT UK shows what this policy dissonance means – life of insecurity and possible removals experienced by thousands of child victims of trafficking.
Labour exploitation too is, to a large extent, enabled by government policy. Deregulation, promoting ultra-flexible labour market and cuts in budgets of inspection bodies have led to increasing precarity in the UK labour market. Vast swathes of workers on zero-hour contracts, subcontracted through chains of labour brokers face uncertainty, poverty wages, poor conditions and in some cases forced labour. Flexibility and complexity in the labour market, where the rights of workers are secondary to the constant growth agenda, bring about situations where forced labour is found in value chains of well know companies.
Then there is the intersection between the labour market policies and immigration policies such as the criminal offence of illegal working. The impact of the new post-Brexit UK immigration tier system, to be introduced in 2021, is yet to seen. COVID19 has not only shone the light on underlying issues of inequality, but is expected to lead to more insecurity and precarity.
Back in 2007 the Collateral Damage report caused a bit of a stir. Rereading it today, I think it is time for volume two as the rights of migrants and rights of workers are under renewed assault, to serve as a reminder what governments and broader international community ought to do to seriously take on the issue of “modern” slavery.