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So long as we blame modern slavery on criminals alone, we’ll never tackle the problem | Emily Kenway

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“Modern slavery” is the scourge of our times – a calling card for the prime minister, a priority for the National Crime Agency and an issue that has gained widespread attention from the media, civil society and politicians. But rather than offering a solution to the problem it seeks to name, modern slavery is a misleading way of talking about exploitation that may help create more problems than it solves.

The term, which became popular in the 2000s, refers to severe forms of exploitation where a person is prevented from leaving because of threats, coercion or the risk of destitution. The problem it describes is widespread: according to the Global Slavery Index, there were 40.3 million slaves in the world in 2016, from garment workers in Bangladesh to farm labourers in Italy. But although the way we talk about exploitation has changed, the reasons for its existence have not. Rebranding extreme forms of exploitation as modern slavery suggests these problems are the fault of individual criminals. Yet the truth is more complicated: many of the practices we call modern slavery are in fact inextricably bound up with our global economy.

Take fast fashion, for example. The availability of cheap clothing is premised on exploitative labour conditions. As one study by the International Labour Organization found, 81% of suppliers in the textile, clothing and footwear sectors have sold items below cost price. This drives down wages and forces workers to do excessive overtime, fuelling poverty and precarity. And this isn’t just an issue in sweatshops overseas. Closer to home in Leicester, one garment supplier told parliament how fast-fashion brands “squeeze us for pennies”. By driving down prices in their supply chains, corporations help to create the exploitative conditions that we now call modern slavery. As the UN special rapporteur on trafficking has said, endemic worker abuse creates a “breeding ground” for modern slavery to thrive.

It isn’t just words that have changed, but the idea of whether exploitation should be seen as a political issue. According to the former leader of the Centre for Social Justice, a thinktank co-founded by Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith, “there should be no hint of partisan party politics whatsoever when it comes to modern slavery”. Yet it’s impossible to separate this issue from party politics. Should wages be set at a rate that people can afford to live on, or at a rate that means businesses can be more profitable? Should moving to a foreign country be legal if you have money, but illegal if you’re poor? These are the questions that determine whether people are forced into modern slavery – and their answers are inherently political.

The phrase itself suggests a parallel with historical slavery, giving rise to grandiose speeches in parliament that reference William Wilberforce and the UK’s “heroic” role in abolition. Indeed, the 2019 Conservative party manifesto told us that “from helping to end the slave trade to tackling modern slavery, the UK has long been a beacon of freedom and human rights”. Aside from the obvious objection that the UK perpetrated slavery in the first place, this sleight of hand obscures how the types of exploitation we now refer to as modern slavery are the product of a history that the Conservatives like to pretend we have left behind. But our economy still relies on exploited workers, as it did before 1833. As long as this goes unchallenged, the conditions that we call modern slavery will persist.

Nowhere is this irony more obvious than in the case of big brands that position themselves as champions against modern slavery. Viewed through the lens of criminal justice, it becomes easy to put exploitation down to individual criminals and see it as an anomaly that can be solved by sending in periodic auditing teams or training staff to “spot the signs” of a slave. But research has shown that auditing doesn’t work: it rarely gets to the bottom of what’s really going on and, unlike trade unions, fails to give workers any power. Moreover, spotting that someone is being exploited does nothing to stop their victimisation happening in the first place.

Similar problems arise when dealing with sex trafficking, one of the main areas of concern to those working to tackle modern slavery. The solution peddled by many campaign groups within this field is to ban buying all sexual services (an approach already introduced in Sweden and several other countries). Proponents argue that eradicating the sector will end the severe exploitation that takes place within it. But we shouldn’t conflate sex trafficking with sex work in general; many women choose to sell sex, and are not trafficked into it.

A 2019 report into sex work in England and Wales found respondents’ reasons for selling sex included poverty and a lack of other employment opportunities. Although traffickers are undoubtedly a problem, the causes of sexual exploitation include economic precarity, migration policies that limit women’s legal opportunities for movement, and a lack of labour rights for sex workers. Without addressing these underlying problems, exploitation in the sex industry will keep happening.

If we really want to end modern slavery for good, we need to strike at the heart of the reasons people are being exploited in the first place. It’s political choices, not individual criminals, that create the conditions for modern slavery to thrive.

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