In the context of renewed criticism of the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act, Rose Broad and Nick Turnbull discuss human trafficking and modern slavery policy development. They find continuities in policy that, despite being repackaged as ‘slavery’ have resulted in unintended consequences and implementation difficulties leading to recently highlighted failures.
In the last 12 months, reports by a variety of organisations have identified failings with the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found that, while a small number of police services were performing well (e.g. Greater Manchester Police’s Challenger Programme), many were falling short, because of:
- a high level of inconsistency in responses to victims, which had resulted in poor outcomes for them;
- a limited understanding of the legislation; and
- problems with the investigative process.
The recent resignation of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, has prompted further criticism of the Government, with suggestions in the media of interference in the independence of his role (for example, see this article). This builds on an open letter written by Hyland to MP Sarah Newton last year, which identified significant problems with the National Referral Mechanism (the system through which people are identified and confirmed as victims of modern slavery) stating that the system was ‘failing victims’.
The government must act now in response to these criticisms and get policy implementation back on track towards reducing exploitation and supporting victims. But these shortcomings are not unexpected, given the piecemeal development of policy to this point. Our analysis traces how slavery and trafficking policy has emerged from a fragmented and piecemeal process, explaining why much more remains to be done.
The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was the first national legislation to use the term ‘slavery’ as opposed to ‘human trafficking’, representing a departure from the global discourse of human trafficking and a reframing of the problem, evoking ideas of the type of exploitation found in historical forms of slavery. The idea of ‘modern slavery’ legislation is now spreading. It is currently under consideration by several countries including Australia (see public enquiry here), building on policy in the UK. As both Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Theresa May has demonstrated a major personal investment in the development of anti-slavery policy, having launched the Modern Slavery Act and dedicated millions of pounds to anti-trafficking efforts.
But anti-slavery policy was never a response to a clearly defined problem. Instead, it has emerged gradually over time, with policymaking helping to structure the meaning of the problem itself.
The first phase of contemporary anti-trafficking policy began in the early 1990s, with international interest in the problem of organised crime and public concerns about illegal migration. At this time, top-down directives led by the international community, embodied in the Palermo Protocol, structured global anti-trafficking policy. But the UK response to this agreement was grafted onto existing legislation ill-suited to the complexity of the problem. The result was separate responses to the sub-problems of sexual exploitation and labour exploitation, with the latter attracting much less attention and investment in policy response.
The dominant framing of the problem, led by the international agreement, was one of the exploitation of young women and girls, which led to neglect of the labour exploitation problem. Responses to labour exploitation were dominated by a migration-crime-security policy frame, without an adequate understanding of employment and exploitation associated with some forms of migration and the consequences of immigration and trade policies on marginalised workers.
During this phase, non-government organisations agitated for increasing resources for victim protection. But insufficient reforms were made, so that the issue remains of major concern, as identified by the National Audit Office report of 2017 and Hyland’s resignation.
The narrow government understanding of the multi-faceted problem of trafficking persisted over time, so that the limitations of policy continued even after the government’s efforts to deal with them in its 2011 strategy document. What had emerged over time was a ‘moderately structured’ problem with only partially effective policy responses.
A second phase of policymaking began with the formulation and passage of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. The problems of sexual and labour exploitation were renamed under the ‘modern slavery’ banner, following effective activism by important transnational moral entrepreneurs in international and domestic politics. With core support from then Home Secretary Theresa May MP (see the Modern Slavery Strategy) , the new legislation generated an increased moral impetus to discourse and practical policymaking, given that it evoked traditional condemnation of historical forms of slavery. While the new terminology has been highly effective in gaining public attention to problems of exploitation, it has hardly promoted the building of a sound evidence base for policymaking.
The different issues were now more structured, and accompanying this was a stronger, protectionist mode of state action. Also brought under the modern slavery umbrella were other forms of exploitation, such as trafficking for criminal exploitation and sham marriage. Problem-structuring effects now defined all labour exploitation as trafficking, and all trafficking as slavery. But this policy frame was still unable to deal with the complexities of forced labour, with the strong law enforcement frame at the heart of its limited effectiveness, leaving those at the periphery of labour markets still vulnerable to unintended policy consequences.
At the same time, new policy measures under the Act aimed at establishing transparency of corporate supply chains were allowed to remain within a frame of corporate self-regulation. This hands-off model, without penalties for non-compliance, leaves only the moral campaigning of consumers and concerns relating to reputation to bring pressure to bear on companies allowing exploitative labour practices in their supply chains. Policy implementation on companies has thus been ineffective because it is too hands-off, while the strong law enforcement model applied to labour exploitation still fails to protect victims.
The main shortcoming is top-down policymaking, which has persisted over time. This has been partially countered by civil society activism, but many shortcomings remain in modern slavery policy. With the government currently being overwhelmed by Brexit negotiations, we hope that its commitment to addressing the slavery and trafficking problem is not waning. Post-Brexit, with reduced security cooperation between the UK and the EU a possible outcome, we expect the problem to only increase in scale and new implementation problems to arise.