The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 40 million men, women and children globally who are victim to modern slavery on any given day. Today, the issue of modern slavery is commanding increasing levels of international attention, with the UK government positioning itself as a ‘global leader’ in the fight for its eradication. However, while the UK government characterises modern slavery as caused by exploitative criminal groups, the issue ultimately has deeper structural roots.
Britain’s prioritisation of modern slavery
‘Modern slavery’ is a fairly new term within British political discourse. Having evolved from the older term of ‘human trafficking’, it was first given substance by the 2014 Modern Slavery Strategy and is defined as encompassing “slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour and human trafficking”. The Home Office estimates that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK, and government expenditure on this issue has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2017/18 an estimated £39 million was spent, and this figure is projected to rise to a high of £61 million in 2018/19.
The UK government characterises modern slavery through the lens of organised crime, and places the blame firmly upon the organised criminal networks that exploit vulnerable victims for their own financial gain. The acts of these criminal networks are defined in the Government’s 2014 report with the moralistic language of manipulation and abuse: “traffickers and slave drivers coerce, deceive and force individuals against their will into a life of abuse, servitude and inhumane treatment”. This conceptualisation of the issue – and the powerful language used to describe it – directs the state into a particular form of response, one which mobilises the weight of the criminal justice system and the British enforcement apparatus, including the National Crime Agency (NCA), the police and the Home Office. A key piece of legislation in this battle was the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, which Prime Minister Theresa May claimed created “tough new penalties to put slave masters behind bars where they belong”.
Addressing structural drivers
Whilst understandable, this characterisation is problematic as it diverts attention from a more pressing reality, namely that the exploitation that defines modern slavery is itself embedded into the structure of the UK’s restrictive immigration regime. At its core, modern slavery is defined by exploitation, whether that be physical or psychological, cultural or social. A prerequisite of exploitation is an imbalance of power, and the UK immigration system, including the ‘hostile environment’ strategy pursued by the Home Office, contributes to the emergence of these imbalances.
The UK immigration system is highly restrictive for low-skilled labour, and as such it is difficult for these individuals to obtain legitimate working visas. Low-skilled migrants are hence pushed underground into illegal employment, working in restaurants, on building sites and as cleaners. Their status puts these workers in a precarious position as they are not covered by the legal employment guarantees that ensure a base level of worker protection. In the absence of legal protection, power imbalances can easily transform a case of illegal working into one of modern slavery, when, for example, an employer forces an individual to work with little or no pay or to work when sick, or engages in sustained physical or verbal abuse.
Beyond this, there is a further coercive mechanism that prolongs exploitation, namely that the result of escape from an abusive situation can often lead to removal from the country. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the body within the Home Office responsible for handling cases of modern slavery. Once a referral is made to this body, an investigation is initiated and a positive or negative decision is reached on whether an individual is a ‘confirmed victim’. Crucially, neither decision entails a permission to stay in the UK, with confirmed victims only being offered a 45 day ‘move-on’ period in which, in the absence of other leave entitlements, they must depart the country. Where the alternative to exploitation is removal from the UK, this creates a structural disincentive for victims of modern slavery to escape their abusive situations.
Reframing the causes
The Government’s discourse characterises modern slavery as an issue of organised crime, the blame for which rests with the criminals who exploit others for their own financial gain. This discourse hides a deeper reality, that the UK’s restrictive immigration regime and the Home Office’s policies create the conditions through which exploitation – and, ultimately, modern slavery – proliferate. It is therefore difficult to resist the conclusion that the responsibility for modern slavery cannot be solely attributed to criminals and the organised crime groups they populate; the Government itself and the policies it enacts also share in moral culpability.
Oliver Goodman is a graduate student in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford.