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OPINION: The problem with ‘spotting the signs’ of modern slavery

by Emily Kenway | .
Thursday, 21 January 2021 08:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Workers cross the road in Whitehall in central London October 20, 2010. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The privileging of awareness-raising as a solution to modern slavery benefits the conditions that create exploitation

By Emily Kenway, former policy adviser to the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and Focus on Labour Exploitation, and author of 'The Truth about Modern Slavery'.

Can you spot the signs of a slave? From temporary tattoos to poster campaigns, from operas to exhibitions, every medium you can imagine has been used to get your attention about modern slavery. In 2015, an EU Commission review of trafficking prevention activities found 85% of the sample were awareness-raising projects. These are amplified by media articles encouraging greater public knowledge of severe exploitation. Criticism has long been leveraged at awareness-raising on the grounds of racialisation and prurient depictions of women, but there’s a deeper problem than content alone, one which begs important questions about power.

When a social problem is presented to us, we need to ask a crucial question: who benefits from how it’s presented? The 2017 Evening Standard campaign ‘Slaves on our Streets’ points toward the answer. The campaign depicts modern slavery as a shocking and exceptional occurrence that “has no place in our society” and is perpetrated by deviant offenders. It tells you “how to spot the signs, and what you can do to combat it.” This is in keeping with the general new abolitionist lexicon, one that portrays modern slavery as a contaminant – a pollutant tainting an otherwise pure substance. New abolitionist language abounds with such descriptions, from using smallpox analogies or calling it a ‘parasite’ to exhortations for companies to ‘scrub their supply chains’. 

The portrayal of exploitation as a contaminant legitimises awareness-raising as a tactic, because it relies on the idea that there’s a pollutant that can be identified and extricated. We, either as the public or as an at-risk group, are supposed to be ignorant of how that pollutant looks. Allegedly, awareness-raising helps us to avoid being ‘lured’ into the path of evil or to rescue someone else from it. But are people ignorant, and are they lured?

Compelling research from Nigeria by academic Peter Olayiwola found that parents whose children were migrating for domestic work from rural to urban contexts were assumed to be ignorant of exploitation risks but were in fact well-versed on the topic. Instead, the decision to migrate was a rational choice about livelihood strategies.

Or consider two audiences for UK awareness-raising campaigns: children at risk of county lines trafficking and the homeless. According to the National Crime Agency, victims of county lines are most likely to have “limited economic opportunities”. With regard to the homeless, let’s listen to Mark. Mark was recruited from a homeless shelter into labour exploitation and, when he realised he was being abused, told the BBC that he had to choose between “two evils” – being exploited or going back to the streets. For many years, the former was preferable because at least he had food and shelter. In some cases, people are outright deceived, for example by men posing as boyfriends, but in far more the only ‘lure’ is that of survival and livelihood.

We may not want this to be true – no one should have so few options that they’re choosing between exploitation and poverty – but that sentiment doesn’t change reality. By peddling awareness-raising as a solution, we’re implicitly suggesting that some people are what sociologist Linsey McGoey calls ‘inferior knowers’, people presumed to be ignorant and whose perspectives are dismissed. She gives the example of the Grenfell Tower residents whose well-founded safety fears were tragically disregarded. In the same way, people’s knowledge about their own lives and options are omitted in favour of a simplistic fairy tale of raid and rescue.

Yes, awareness-raising can provoke members of the public to report concerns, but even this isn’t so clear cut. Research from Nottingham University found that the public feared reporting concerns could make a situation worse, such as if someone’s immigration status was insecure. My own Freedom of Information request for my book revealed a very low number of investigations and victim identifications arising from the UK’s Modern Slavery Helpline referrals to the main inspectorate tackling this harm.

The idea that spotting the signs leads to ‘freedom’ is also dubious; too many survivors end up trapped in a cycle of exploitation or deported to destitution. What is freedom without a sufficient livelihood? What is dignity without options?

The privileging of awareness-raising as a solution to modern slavery benefits the conditions that create exploitation in the first place. It does this by implying that the problem is extraneous to business-as-usual – a stain to be scrubbed away, leaving the underlying socio-economic fabric intact and unquestioned.

This is why we have politicians purporting to tackle modern slavery and spending £12,000 to light up landmarks for Anti-Slavery Day, as revealed by an FOI in my book, whilst overseeing a 167% increase in rough sleeping since 2010.

At most, awareness-raising should be the last line of defence, there to pick up the pieces if a person has been failed at every stage beforehand.

It’s those earlier stages – prevention of destitution, ensuring rights for migrants and sex workers, sufficient social safety nets, regulating businesses and properly resourcing labour inspection – that would truly reduce severe exploitation. But they mean confronting the real problem: the underlying conditions that make people desperate, vulnerable and without proper channels to enforce their rights. And that is a far harder task than lighting up Big Ben or sticking up a poster.