An end to modern slavery?

The ‘Modern Day Slavery Bill’ currently making its way through Parliament has been trailed as the first piece of legislation in Europe to specifically tackle ‘modern slavery’. The Bill which would apply to England and Wales seeks to introduce a range of measures, according to the Gov.UK website these are;

  • consolidate existing human trafficking and slavery offences.
  • increase the maximum sentence for human trafficking to life imprisonment, introduce an anti-slavery commissioner
  • introduce slavery and trafficking prevention orders and slavery and trafficking risk orders
  • create a new requirement for ‘first responders’ to report all suspected cases of human trafficking

On a superficial level this is all fairly difficult to argue with, however it is what is not said that matters here- what happens to those who have been trafficked? The clear implication is that they are seen as simply cogs in the criminal justice process whose role is to provide evidence to facilitate prosecution. No mention is made of the need to support those who have been trafficked or to acknowledge the difficult circumstances they may find themselves in; their uncertain migration status, the difficulties in deciding whether to give evidence and potentially put family members at ‘home’ at risk because of the long reach of the criminal gangs involved, or the possibility that they could potentially be prosecuted for offences committed whilst under duress.

Without seeing those who have been trafficked as victims and giving them the legal protection that follows from this even the Bill’s proposed core purpose of making prosecution easier is unlikely to succeed.  A study by Dwyer et al which forms part of a series of powerful reports for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Forced Labour (available at Forced labour: contemporary slavery in the UK | Joseph Rowntree Foundation) concludes

Furthermore, the restrictive and complex workings of the UK immigration system are likely to push migrants into the hands of employment agents, smugglers and traffickers. (Dwyer et al, 2011 p29)

At a time when the debate around migration to the UK takes place in an increasingly fractious and polarised context in which strident right wing voices are heard loudest and most often it becomes vital to make the case heard that there is a link between immigration policy, trafficking and slavery.

In a frank and measured report, the parliamentary committee which scrutinised the report have called for large parts of it to be rewritten as they are not fit for purpose. Baroness Butler-Sloss one of the members of the committee is quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying;

“Unless and until the protection of victims, and the provision of support and services to them, are put on a statutory footing at the heart of this legislation, there is a risk that we will turn victims into criminals. Apart from the fact that this would be morally wrong, it is also self-defeating.”

They also called for a more tightly focused bill with amongst other things specific offences of slavery of children and adults;child exploitation; exploitation; child trafficking; trafficking, and facilitating the commission of an offence of modern slavery. Furthermore they call for the establishment of a system of children’s advocates with statutory powers, and a duty for publically quoted companies to report on their own measures to eradicate slavery from within their supply chains.  As highlighted previously, a key issue in the committee report is the need for victims not to be prosecuted for crimes committed while they were enslaved, a factor which several pieces of research have highlighted as crucial in supporting victims to come forward.

A further troubling dimension is the way in which the fight against slavery has been reconfigured to highlight particular discourses. Theresa May has on several occasions linked the current legislation to the work of William Wilberforce, yet wider recognition that the historical struggle to end transatlantic slavery was complex and multi-faceted and that the role of key black campaigners or movements was hugely significant is completely absent. This absence is also found in some of the ‘histories’ of slavery found on the websites of NGO’s in this area Constructing the debate in this way sends the message that we in the ‘civilised’ west are saving the ‘other’ whether they are from Africa, South East Asia or Eastern Europe. In this way we strip those who have been trafficked of any agency, of any acknowledgement that the decision to be trafficked can be a rational response to extreme poverty, war or a range of other difficult circumstances, as well as a criminal act. Acknowledging this allows us to see those who have been trafficked as individuals with particular needs and aspirations rather than an undifferentiated mass of victims and therefore makes us think about the need for a range of responses.

As yet the Government has not responded formally to the scrutiny report and we are now only one year away from the next general election. As yet there has been much easy rhetoric but rather less evidence that the key issues as identified by those with expertise in this area will be challenged. In a political climate in which in increasingly hardline attitudes to vulnerable people have become mainstream and where the debate around migration is increasingly couched in terms which sail close to being explicitly racist, it is vital that those who wish to see change argue for a response which fully addresses the issues and locates them in the broader debate about migration policy, rather than supporting a piece of pre-election window-dressing which will have strictly limited practical benefits.

For further information as to how the bill relates to vulnerable children and young people in particular there is a lot of very useful material on the ECPAT website.

Graham Brotherton,
Head of Working with Children Young People and Families, Newman University

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