David Gadd is Professor of Criminology and Rose Broad is Senior Lecturer in Criminology both at the University of Manchester. They are working together on the ESRC funded Perpetrators of Modern Slavery Offences Project. This blog highlights how:
- modern slavery and immigration law have become intertwined;
- referring to modern slavery as ‘evil’ idealises victims in ways that can be detrimental;
- obfuscating the causes of modern slavery risks appeasing the public’s discomfort at their complicity in the exploitation of those deemed ‘illegal immigrants’.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has often referred to modern slavery as an ‘evil’. The term ‘evil’ has been used in her political speeches outlining her priorities as leader as well as the Conservative Party manifesto. The terms ‘evil’ and vile have also appeared in government policy documents and job advertisements for multi-agency chairs of the National Referral Mechanism. ‘Evil’ is evoked in political commentary to forewarn of the risk of a bygone horror – transatlantic slavery – returning. The trading in slaves that fed British demand for cotton, tobacco and molasses by transporting people from Africa to the Americas was first outlawed through the Slave Trade Act 1807. But British politicians rarely explain that this legislation was implemented after industrialists in Britain and the US were compensated by government for the loss of human ‘property’ they would incur and once alternative indentured labour practices, that continue in some former colonies, were established.
Embedding modern slavery within immigration control
Today, ‘modern slavery’ is condemned the world over, but the problem takes a different form to transatlantic slavery. Unlike their historical counterparts who were captured and transported en masse, today’s ‘slaves’ have usually sought work in other countries only to become caught in exploitative relations that are hard to escape as non-citizens, denied workers’ rights or recourse to law. Paradoxically, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was sandwiched between the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts – legislation that formed the ‘hostile environment policy’ that yielded the 2018 Windrush scandal. Hence, efforts to curb modern slavery have focused more on the criminalisation of foreign offenders than businesses that rely on exploitation within their supply chains to produce competitively priced goods and services.
Counterposing ‘evil traffickers’ with ‘virtuous victims’
As we explain in an article in the British Journal of Criminology, the demonisation of foreign traffickers exacerbates concern about ‘illegal immigrants’ by idealising victims as essentially virtuous. Such idealisation has hindered the development of services for victims with complex needs, including those reliant upon undocumented labour, crime, drugs or sex work to survive. For government, successful interventions have sometimes been counted, superficially, in terms of referrals to the National Referral Mechanism. However, this service denies recognition to the vast majority of its applicants and has led to poor outcomes, including poverty, deportation and the concomitant risk of re-trafficking for many non-EU nationals who seek support from it. Earlier in the criminal justice process, police ‘rescue missions’ to tackle sex trafficking have sometimes led to the criminalisation of sex workers. Likewise, rescue operations mounted by border forces in European seas can be geared to repatriating those fleeing persecution as a deterrent to other migrants. Tragically, many of the 4000 people kept daily in UK removal centres are also trapped in debt bondage accumulated when false documents and transport were purchased in the pursuit of better lives for themselves and their families.
Putting offenders in context
We know much less about modern slavery offenders except that they are, almost by definition, predominantly foreign nationals. This makes them especially newsworthy and generates the false impression that they are pervasive. Convictions for modern slavery offences in England and Wales rose from 73 in 2010/11, to 192 in 2015/16, and 239 in 2017/18. But these are very small numbers relative to the total volume of offenders convicted each year. (By way of comparison, there were 75,853 convictions for domestic violence offences in England and Wales in 2016/17). Moreover, this growth in convictions occurred in part because the definition of modern slavery was widened to include the sexual abuse of children in care, forced marriage, domestic servitude, cannabis cultivation, the coerced selling of drugs across counties and assisting the movement of adults involved in prostitution within national borders. Few criminologists would consider this range of crimes and vices to share common causes or solutions.
Ethnographic research suggests that many of those accused of trafficking have been exploited themselves; people who have endured a succession of exploitative relations, engendered in part by under-regulation of the labour market and strict immigration law. For example, migrant workers living in cramped accommodation and working long hours for very low pay to pick and package food that ends up in British supermarkets have limited options for escaping their financial entrapment. They can increase their income through criminal activity; undertake work for precarious ‘cash-in-hand’ returns; or move up a rung to become the organisers of labour. Partly for this reason, a third of convicted traffickers are women, most of whom have been multiply exploited and victimised themselves. Interview-based research suggests that these women’s lives can become intertwined with those of men raised in poorer countries who come to the UK hoping they will advance economically while escaping the dogmatism of traditionally patriarchal or religious cultures. Some women turn to these men for protection while working in sex industries, hoping the pay will enable them to secure ‘normal’ lives one day. In turn, the need for transport across closed borders, housing when none can be accessed, and work when legitimate opportunities are denied generates a decentralised division of labour facilitated by relatives and associates that is often mischaracterized as ‘organised crime’.
In other words, the desire for better lives, security and work felt by those living in parts of the world – including many former European colonies – where these have long been lacking and against whom borders have been closed generates the opportunities which those deemed ‘traffickers’ exploit. Policymakers must ask why these traffickers have become so unfeeling that they see other people’s plights in commercial terms. The answer to this question is most likely to come from analysing their life-histories and the histories of the places from where they descend. Until such answers are forthcoming, policymakers should resist using biblical terms which appease the public’s own discomfort at being implicated as passive bystanders, everyday consumers, or patriotic citizens in the exploitation many migrants endure.