Are we better off on the inside? Modern slavery and human trafficking as platforms for political mobilisation


Many of these high-profile ‘solutions’ are also marked by a reluctance to engage too deeply or directly with questions of economic and political interest. It is instead assumed that nearly everyone must be on the same side, since all people of good will are united in their opposition to extreme abuse. This contributes in a widespread tendency to treat trafficking as a technical challenge, and thereby fail to sufficiently engage with the fraught relationship between policies, interests, and larger agendas.

It has proved very easy to justify any number of policies in anti-trafficking or anti-slavery terms. Recent efforts to heavily restrict mobility by building a literal wall in the US or a metaphorical fortress in Europe are not motivated by concerns about the plight of migrants. Yet they have nonetheless been justified in humanitarian terms to prevent the criminal schemes of human traffickers. As Melissa Gira Grant has demonstrated, Donald Trump has invoked trafficking to give “… his ‘big, beautiful wall’ a humanitarian gloss, while stirring up racist panic about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who, Trump says, use ‘blue tape’ to gag women and girls, ‘tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs’—a disturbing, baseless detail Trump mentions frequently”.

Corporations have also found that narrowly focusing upon individual cases of ‘exceptional’ abuse is an effective strategy for displacing or deflecting concerns about how they treat their workers more generally. When Ivanka Trump denounces modern slavery as an “ugly stain on civilization”, she is not thinking of the Trump-branded products made by precarious and vulnerable workers in places such as Indonesia. Campaigns focusing upon modern slavery often leave larger systems at the margins of the frame. They may not only be ineffective. They may also end up indirectly legitimating the global economic systems which manufacture systems of vulnerability and abuse in the first place.

Some of the negative effects of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking interventions have come to be described in terms of collateral damage. These damages include police abusing people they are supposed to be rescuing and immigration agents deporting migrants captured in raids. They are particularly acute in the case of commercial sex work, where all kinds of harmful external interventions, such as bans on advertising sex work online, have been chiefly justified in terms of combating sex trafficking. Further problems have also been identified in relation to ‘raid and rescue’ operations, which involve kicking down doors to arrest villains and rescue victims.

While rescue and rehabilitation sound good in theory they frequently fall short in practice. People who have been ‘rescued’ can be subject to deportation proceedings or end up being forcibly incarcerated in poorly run and unsafe ‘care homes’. These homes are especially notorious in India, where sex workers who have been ‘rescued’ routinely end up running from their ‘rescuers’. For many sex workers, campaigns against trafficking and slavery can be best understood as a stalking horse for a longstanding political agenda which seeks to deny the legitimacy of sex work as work. Not everyone who works in this field has the same attitude towards sex work, but the frequently negative effects of these campaigns and interventions for sex workers raises challenging questions about the costs and benefits of life on the inside, since it is other insiders who are targeting sex work.

Inside? Outside? Do we really need to choose?

Once all of these considerations are placed on the table the cost/benefit calculus becomes very challenging. Insiders can point to positive gains, yet questions remain about the extent to which their activities end up helping to both legitimate and disguise other political and economic agendas. Outsiders may be less compromised, yet they may also find it difficult to advance their goals, since campaigns focusing upon migrant and worker rights have been on the back foot for decades now. Campaigns against human trafficking and modern slavery may well be flawed from an analytical and political standpoint, but they also command a high degree of political currency and legitimacy. What would we stand to gain or lose in political and strategic terms if we started somewhere else? Perhaps attempting to discard trafficking and slavery is also politically risky? Does being ‘on the outside’ mean sacrificing at least some access and influence in favour of a more ambitious and ideologically ‘pure’ political vision, which ultimately has very little chance of actually being realised in practice?

These are not the kind of questions which can be answered once and for all, but instead require close and continual attention to potential trade-offs, opportunities, and complications. Not all anti-slavery or trafficking interventions look the same, and the kinds of strategic calculations which shape the behaviour of civil society campaigners may well be different to the calculations of officials working for governments or international organisations. Things may look different for lawyers than for social workers. Political constraints and opportunities found in one country are going to be different to those in other countries. There may be occasions when anti-trafficking or anti-slavery are strategically beneficial. There may be others where they are not. Context matters a great deal here.

That being said, it is not possible to entirely disentangle the local from the global. Campaigns against modern slavery and trafficking consume a huge amount of energy and attention, and therefore have the effect of both displacing and distorting other kinds of political conversations. Being on ‘the inside’ may offer short-term gains which come at a longer-term cost. Many campaigners in many different fields have recognised that the levels of interest and investment associated with trafficking and slavery can be harnessed to help advance their own goals, but this in turn contributes to a widespread reluctance to bite the hand which feeds. Many insiders are aware that there are major problems with modern slavery and human trafficking in both theory and practice, yet they nonetheless remain reluctant to say too much about many of these problems in public, since this runs the risk undercutting their political platform. Major scandals frequently disappear without leaving a trace, such as the disastrous ‘slave redemption’ programme in Sudan or the fabrications of Somaly Mam. Shortcomings continue to be excused since the field is ‘new’, despite having been around for decades. If there continues to be little or no appetite for internal critique and public reflexivity then the same kinds of ‘solutions’ will be tried again and again, despite their now well-documented flaws and limitations.

Over the next month we will be publishing a range of positions and perspectives regarding the tactical and strategic calculations associated with human trafficking and modern slavery. All of our contributors accept that there is room for further improvement when it comes to current practices. The key issue here is not whether or not things can be improved, but instead what improvement might look like. Some people want to build upon what we have by developing new strategies and models. Others want to tear things down and start somewhere else. Some favour a mix of both approaches. While everyone has a view regarding what should be done, the rubber really hits the road when it comes to identifying the strategies which are required in order to translate these goals into practice.



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