The Truth About Modern Slavery by Emily Kenway review – too much hollow talk | Society books


During her time as home secretary and prime minister, Theresa May spoke repeatedly about her quest to eradicate the scourge of modern slavery. She described it as the “greatest human rights issue of our time”, and in 2013 wrote an article outlining the importance of her modern slavery bill, headlined “Modern slave drivers, I’ll end your evil trade”. When she left office, her supporters pointed to this legislation as her key legacy.

How could anyone find fault with such a cause? Everyone is against slavery; the new abolitionists include pop stars, supermodels, billionaires and philanthropists. Criticising the campaign is like saying one is against motherhood and apple pie, Emily Kenway writes, before comprehensively unpicking the hypocrisy that runs through much of the government’s work in this sector. Her powerful treatise argues that modern slavery does not really exist as a clear phenomenon, but has been seized on to divert attention from the underlying causes of labour exploitation, and to provide moral cover for tightened immigration policies.

Kenway, who worked as an adviser to the UK’s first anti-slavery commissioner (a position created by May), has spent years watching, up close, as the issue has been weaponised by politicians for their ulterior motives. The experience has made her very cynical about the new abolitionism. “The modern slavery story is adept at providing moral legitimacy for the very policies that enable severe exploitation in the first place,” she writes.

Once people-trafficking has been established as a serious problem that the Home Office needs to tackle, introducing hostile environment immigration legislation can be presented as a reasonable reaction. It is a logic used also by Donald Trump, whose response to what he described as an “invasion” by human traffickers on the US-Mexico border, is well known. “You need a physical barrier. You need a wall,” he declared. But increased border checks at Calais did not deter the people smugglers responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in 2019; the extra security simply pushes people towards to embarking on ever more dangerous journeys.

A brick kiln in Dimapur, India, March 2021.
A brick kiln in Dimapur, India, March 2021. Photograph: Caisii Mao/REX/Shutterstock

At a Global Slavery Indexevent in 2016 (where Russell Crowe, Tony Blair, Bono and Richard Branson all expressed their commitment to eradicating the evil), the figure of 45.8 million people living in modern slavery was cited, but Kenway argues that the numbers are “dodgy” because the concept is so hard to quantify. The catch-all notion of modern slavery embraces people working as forced labourers in brick-kilns in India, garment factories in Bangladesh, European brothels and in British nail bars. Some of those workers may have been bought and sold, but most of them could more accurately be described as the poorly paid victims of exploitative employers. By lumping them all together as “slaves”, governments are able to respond by focusing on the hunt for the criminals responsible – arresting and deporting their way out of the problem – instead of looking at the bigger, harder questions of why we’ve allowed such exploitative working conditions to continue to exist.

Her book is written with the furious impatience of someone who has had to sit through too many hollow, worthy political speeches on the subject. Kenway notes wearily how references to the “heroic” achievements of William Wilberforce in ending the legal trade in human beings are scattered throughout the speeches of modern politicians who are keen to associate their own endeavours with the work of 19th-century campaigners. (These fleeting references never capture the inglorious complexity of that campaign, she notes, a complexity recently described so well in Michael Taylor’s The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery.) Everyone wanted to be an adviser on May’s modern slavery bill, an official tells Kenway; “It was the race to be the next Wilberforce.”

“The modern slavery story uses the tale of 19th-century abolition and its heroic figures to make us think that today’s forms of severe exploitation are just like historical slavery: they are immoral aberrations that we are all on the same side against, and that we can overthrow and then carry on in a more humane manner,” Kenway writes. But the labour exploitation that exists within the baggy notion of modern slavery is so wide-ranging that comparisons with historical slavery are misleading and simplistic, she argues.

The narrative around modern slavery is “ignorance cloaked as knowledge” and it “makes us blind to things we need to know”, Kenway argues. If we refer to everyone in forced labour as slaves rather than as exploited workers, then the solutions offered by the government are going to be the wrong ones. It is easier to focus on modern slavery as a clearly abhorrent problem, than to question why globalisation has allowed us to turn a blind eye to unacceptable labour conditions in distant countries. Workplace exploitation could be reduced by better minimum wage enforcement and strong union action. But the Conservative politicians fighting against modern slavery are also committed ideologically to reducing levels of business regulation, hostile to migrant workers and dislike trade unions.

A nail bar in London.
A nail bar in London. Photograph: Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Inspection teams have seen funding cuts at just the time when they are most needed. The average employer can expect an inspection from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ wage unit once every 500 years. In 2019, the Employment Agencies Standards Inspectorate had 13 staff to cover around 18,000 employment agencies and 1.1 million workers. “This is madness if we supposedly want to ‘end modern slavery’, that is, reduce exploitation,” Kenway writes.

She highlights an official confusion over whether the victims of modern slavery are really victims who need rescuing and saving or whether they are in fact immigration offenders who need to be arrested and deported. If Britain was really concerned about assisting the people affected, then it would have a better track record on looking after these victims. But between April 2017 and end of 2018, the Home Office rejected 310 applications for discretionary leave to remain and 65 asylum claims made by child victims of modern slavery; in 2015 only 12% of adults who were officially recognised as modern slavery victims were given discretionary leave to remain. It is a depressing reality that the process of “rescuing” victims is often done in conjunction with immigration enforcement teams, and frequently people are arrested, detained, deported and confronted with new debt and destitution in their home countries.

Kenway damns the modern slavery legislation with faint praise, concluding it has had “some positive effects”. Many committed workers in the sector may bridle at her harsh conclusions, but this assessment of the Conservative party’s crusade on modern slavery offers little to celebrate.

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