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Researching Forced Labour in the Global EconomyMethodological Challenges and Advances$

Genevieve LeBaron

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266472

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266472.001.0001

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Evaluating the Political Effects of Anti-slavery and Anti-trafficking Activism

Evaluating the Political Effects of Anti-slavery and Anti-trafficking Activism

(p.60) 4 Evaluating the Political Effects of Anti-slavery and Anti-trafficking Activism
Researching Forced Labour in the Global Economy

Joel Quirk

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This Chapter considers ‘what happens next’ once information has been collected. This in turn means focusing upon political activism. Drawing upon ideas and insights from existing works on social movements and advocacy networks, I consider some of the main ways in which ‘success’ or ‘progress’ have been – and, I would argue, should be – evaluated in relation to several recent high-profile forms of political activism targeting slavery, trafficking and forced labour. The principle argument that emerges from this analysis is that anti-slavery and anti-trafficking need to be regarded as one component of broader portfolio of practices, interests and ideologies, rather than a singular issue or civil society cause which is assumed to enjoy a separate and elevated humanitarian or bipartisan political status. There is consequentially a pressing need for researchers to made further efforts to help understand and refine the ways in which patterns of political activism and mobilisation can strategically target the underlying sources and conditions of forced labour, vulnerability and marginalisation.

Keywords:   social movements, political activism, modern slavery, human trafficking, forced labour, research methods, transnational advocacy networks


CHANGING THE WORLD FOR the better has never been easy. As a now extensive literature on social movements and transnational advocacy networks has demonstrated, there are numerous obstacles that need to be overcome before any kind of meaningful change can take place. These obstacles include ideological opposition, institutional inertia and strategic self-interest, along with further complications associated with questions of leadership, strategy, organisation and mobilisation (Tarrow 2011; Carpenter 2014; Wong 2012). It has also become clear, moreover, that even landmark political campaigns routinely fall short of their ultimate goals, and therefore routinely end up with partial or qualified gains. Even high-profile campaigns that have been widely celebrated as successful milestones, such as historical campaigns against legal slave systems or European colonial rule, have been challenged in relation to the unfinished business of both the racial afterlives of historical slave systems and the enduring coloniality of power (Sharpe 2016; Mignolo 2012). Much the same story applies to self-identified ‘modern-day abolitionists’, who similarly highlight the limitations of the legal abolition of slavery as part of their larger case regarding the need for ongoing action against extreme forms of exploitation and abuse in the world today.

The mechanics and effects of political activism have all kinds of implications for both research and researchers. Most researchers not only seek to better understand the world, they also aspire to make a useful contribution to broader efforts to change the world for the better. This is especially true of researchers working on questions relating to slavery, human trafficking and forced labour, since their choice of topics frequently arises out of an underlying personal commitment to help combat the types of abuses which they study. Research is therefore frequently conceived as making a contribution within the context of a larger division of labour, wherein research generates useful information or evidence, which is then (p.61) in turn – potentially or hopefully – harnessed by others on the ‘front line’ for the purposes of activism, mobilisation or reform. While this rough division of labour between information and activism sounds good in theory, it frequently ends up being messy, under-theorised and/or inefficient in practice (Jacobsen & Landau 2003; Shaw 2003).

This chapter starts with the premise that one of the core goals of research should be to enable relevant campaigners, activists and institutions to ‘fight better’ within the context of larger efforts to combat abuses of human rights. By speaking in these terms, I want to focus attention upon the potential role of researchers in generating tools, insights, information and arguments that will help to improve the prospects, proposals and strategies associated with forms of political activism and mobilisation. This focus on activism marks a departure from other chapters in this collection, which are chiefly concerned with different ways in which information regarding patterns and effects of severe labour exploitation can be collected and interpreted. The goal of the chapter is instead to extend the remit of the collection to include a further analysis of ‘what happens next’ once information has been collected.

Drawing upon ideas and insights from existing works on social movements and transnational advocacy networks, I consider some of the main ways in which ‘success’ or ‘progress’ have been – and, I would argue, should be – evaluated when it comes to ongoing forms of political activism and institutional policy specifically targeting slavery, trafficking and forced labour. In pursuit of this overall goal, I briefly analyse two widely celebrated examples of ‘successful’ responses to modern slavery and trafficking: the Modern Slavery Act (UK) and the Trafficking in Persons Reports (US). The principal argument that emerges from this analysis is that anti-slavery/anti-trafficking needs to be nested within a broader portfolio of practices, interests and ideologies, rather than treated as a singular topic that is assumed to enjoy a separate and elevated humanitarian or bipartisan political status. As we shall see below, much of the popular appeal and recent political ‘success’ of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking can be largely attributed to the degree to which ‘modern slavery’ has been constructed as a singular and exceptional problem that rarely threatens major political and economic interests, particularly in the Global North. In this political environment, fighting better must be understood in terms of carefully analysing and strategically targeting the systematic sources of forced labour, vulnerability and marginalisation.

A ‘landmark piece of legislation’? The Modern Slavery Act

Many conversations about slavery and abolition feature the United Kingdom. This is because Britain was both the most successful slaver of the early modern Atlantic world and a central actor in the emergence and internationalisation of anti-slavery (p.62) (Quirk 2011: 23–112). This contentious record is frequently remembered selectively, provoking charges that the British have celebrated abolition while forgetting enslavement (Hall 2007; Oldfield 2007). This selective orientation was recently on display in 2016, when the newly appointed prime minister, Theresa May (2016), declared her intention to build on Britain’s ‘historic stand to ban slavery two centuries ago’ and to ‘once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery and preserving … freedoms and values’. In addition to £33 million of funding, May was keen to highlight the pioneering work of the then recently passed Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which not only established ‘tough new penalties’ for modern slavery offenders, but also introduced ‘enhanced protection and support for victims and a world-leading transparency requirement on businesses’ (May 2016). The Act has been favourably received in many circles and was recently celebrated as a ‘landmark piece of legislation … the UK can build on internationally as it seeks to reassert its place in international affairs following Brexit’ (Grono 2017).

Both the origins and operations of the Modern Slavery Act have been closely scrutinised, so this chapter will not delve into the finer procedural details here (see Kotiswaran 2016). The primary goal is instead to reflect upon some of the main ways in which this Act has been evaluated in terms of success or progress. On this front, a representative point of departure comes from Andrew Wallis, the founder and CEO of Unseen, an anti-slavery organisation based in Bristol. According to Wallis (2015), it was important to ‘pause and celebrate the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act’. The main features of his overall evaluation are worth quoting at length:

So two years ago there was nothing, zero, zip, no chance. Fast forward two years and we have a Modern Slavery Act, a Commissioner, specific provision for children, a review of how we can effectively identify victims and a Transparency in Supply Chains clause in the act requiring large businesses to report what they are doing to ensure slavery cannot exist in its business practices and supply chains. Is the legislation perfect? No of course not, but get real no legislation will ever be perfect! But two years ago we had zero and then we had the opportunity to aim for a 100% and today we’ve ended up with 95%.

(Bold text in original.)

Wallis attributed this rapid transformation to the impact of the evidence produced in a report entitled ‘It Happens Here’ by the Centre for Social Justice under the auspices of a Slavery Working Group that he chaired (Centre for Social Justice 2013). This evidence is said to have been recognised by May as ‘overwhelming’, to the point where ‘doing nothing was clearly not an option’ (Wallis 2015). While accepting that ‘5%’ remained outstanding, Wallis also declared that critics should not allow this to overshadow the ‘95%’ achieved to date and that we should remain confident that ‘we will get there eventually’.

Wallis’ narrative contains a number of elements that are likely to be broadly familiar. In keeping with now well-established conventions and expectations regarding patterns of political activism, his narrative revolves around civil society (p.63) groups and researchers making a principled effort to change the world by initiating a campaign, which the state is subsequently obliged to respond to. Importantly, the response that follows is then conceptualised in terms of a feedback mechanism, wherein progress is measured against the key demands featured in the campaign. When political activism is defined in these terms, the evaluation of success or progress becomes a question of the relative distance between civil society activities and subsequent institutional responses. In addition, there is a further expectation that these responses will fall short to either a lesser or greater degree thanks to political and practical vagaries.

It is entirely possible to disagree with Wallis (see ITUC 2017) regarding the ‘percentage’ of progress achieved, yet nonetheless accept – either implicitly or explicitly – that the question of success or failure should be approached in these linear and reactive terms. As the above quotation makes clear, Wallis may well have wanted more ‘progress’ in an ideal world, but practical constraints meant that he remains ‘thankful’ for partial or imperfect success. There is no doubt that this formula is attractive, since it implies that no single solution will ever be definitive. However, as we shall see below, the assumption that ‘we will get there eventually’ is flawed.

What is most important for my purposes here is not whether or not Wallis is right regarding his own contribution, but that the Modern Slavery Act has been widely understood to be the product of a call which emerged from within civil society, and that the primary contribution of the British government was to respond to this call. This call and response model is not entirely without merit, but in this case and in other similar scenarios it ends up dramatically overstating the power and agency of civil society (and other non-state actors, such as academic researchers), while minimising the power and agency of the state. Whereas civil society activists and organisations are portrayed as dynamic actors and initiators, the state ends up being reduced to the position of a respondent that is acted upon. The contribution of civil society therefore ends up being overstated, and the role of the state in determining which issues are taken up and on what specific terms – both at a given moment and in the future – ends up being obscured or diminished. Civil society actors call for all kinds of reforms on a regular basis. Most of these calls have little to no effect on state policy. Civil society actors make all kinds of proposals regarding the overall design of policy. Most of these proposals are not taken up. Both the existence and the final form of the UK Modern Slavery Act are largely the products of calculations and agendas which have their origins within the British state, rather than being imperfect reflections of civil society campaigning.

We therefore need to understand the Modern Slavery Act in terms of the broader strategic purposes, policy priorities and ideological agendas of the British state. As both home secretary and prime minister, Theresa May has made a leading contribution to a government that is committed to deregulating the labour market, defending corporate and financial interests, cutting social services and workplace (p.64) protections, and restricting, regulating and punishing international migrants (Strauss 2012: 180–97; Robinson 2015: 129–43). The dimensions and effects of the Modern Slavery Act must be understood in relation to this larger political agenda and ideological orientation. This wider context is especially significant in relation to migration, because the Modern Slavery Act was sandwiched between two closely related pieces of legislation: the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016.

Hostility towards migrant outsiders is now firmly established as a central driver of state policy in many countries. This trend has strong roots within the United Kingdom, where anti-immigrant sentiments were arguably the catalyst behind the 2016 vote to leave the European Union. These sentiments build upon a mutually reinforcing dynamic between politicians and the electorate, with the former seeking to mobilise the latter via anti-immigration appeals and the latter elevating politicians who are believed to share their anti-immigrant views. In this now highly charged environment, the imperative to ‘get tough’ on immigrants casts a long shadow over modern slavery, making it very difficult to distinguish between ‘dangerous categories and categories in danger, between those destined for repression and those who inspire compassion’ (Fassin 2015: 2; see also: Plambech 2014; O’Connell Davidson 2015a).

This distinction between a ‘dangerous category’ (migrants) and a ‘category in danger’ (prospective slavery, trafficking or forced labour victims) is worth developing. As we have already seen, activists such as Wallis often evaluate success in terms of the degree to which the British state reacted sufficiently to a call from civil society to protect and support modern slaves. However, the overall calculus shifts once broader policies and practices targeting migrants are added to the equation. From this vantage point, the key question is not only whether or not the British state has sufficiently reacted to campaigns to protect victims from ‘danger’, but also what role the state has played in creating the danger in question in the first place.

Take, by way of example, this assessment from Paul Blomfield (2015), a Labour member of the UK Parliament, who argued that the second Immigration Act:

not only risk[s] forcing undocumented workers into exploitative employment relationships—supposedly outlawed by the Modern Slavery Act—but potentially give[s] abusive employers even more weapons with which to threaten employees.

(Blomfield 2015)

Some of the key issues here concern the potential effects of weakening institutional protections for migrants and asylum seekers in conjunction with a further expansion of immigration inspections, controls and penalties. Importantly, these effects are not confined to victims of slavery, but extend to a much larger population of precarious migrants. One of the best-known examples of this far-reaching problem concerns overseas domestic workers, whose legal right to change employers under the terms of their visa was revoked in April 2012, thereby further constraining (p.65) their capacity to protect and defend their rights. Theresa May and her colleagues repeatedly refused to restore this right, despite a campaign both within and outside Parliament, during the passage of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 (Roberts 2015; Gausi 2015).

This overall line of argument also has additional applications when it comes to thinking about the future. As the Wallis example shows, it is sometimes asserted – or even assumed – that additional positive refinements will emerge in response to each new campaign, with each individual campaign representing a stepping-stone in a longer-term journey. If a particular state has appeared to be receptive, or at least susceptible, to a call for reform from civil society in the past, then doesn’t this in turn create at least qualified grounds to be hopeful for further action in the future? Although this overall logic may well be applicable on some occasions, it nonetheless runs the risk of overestimating the political prospects of further or deeper reform. When civil society is given pride of place within the narrative, the internal reasons why states end up adopting some policies and approaches and not others can get lost.

It is one thing to pass legislation that narrowly targets ‘exceptional’ abuses for criminal sanction and quite another thing to pass further legislation that attempts to address the underlying sources of vulnerability, violence and marginalisation associated with punitive immigration regimes (or, alternatively, labour market deregulation and corporate complicity). Step one is relatively easy politically. Any further step that seeks to go substantially beyond the first is likely to be much more politically contentious. While the Modern Slavery Act and other similar pieces of anti-slavery or anti-trafficking legislation typically enjoy ‘bipartisan’ political support – and therefore typically secure parliamentary endorsement via large legislative majorities that cross party lines – this broad political support is almost entirely contingent upon the legislation in question not intruding too directly or significantly upon major political and economic interests and associated patterns of privilege.

There are a number of distinct arguments at work that are worth teasing out further here. First, the political popularity of anti-slavery/trafficking initiatives can frequently be traced to the fact that they have been narrowly targeted against ‘exceptional’ incidents, and therefore do not directly threaten major political and economic interests (Bunting & Quirk 2017). In some cases, such as the now ubiquitous model of discretionary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the appeal of this politics of exception can also be traced to its strategic value in diluting or deflecting calls for more ambitious forms of regulation or reform (LeBaron & Quirk 2016; LeBaron & Lister 2015). Indeed, an initial step of voluntary CSR policy may ultimately end up working to undercut or displace other prospective future steps in terms of more robust regulation.

Second, we have the related argument that broader interests and ideologies – such as anti-immigrant sentiments, deregulation and corporate profits – are likely (p.66) to create a hard ceiling when it comes to further steps that go beyond a narrow focus on ‘exceptional’ incidents or discretionary actions (O’Connell 2007). It is clear, for example, that collective bargaining and workplace organising via unions could potentially offer a degree of protection against severe labour exploitation, yet encouraging unionisation is unlikely to be an issue which commands bipartisan support. This ceiling is not necessarily absolute, but the degree of difficulty involved is likely to be much higher than was the case for the initial step. Bipartisan political support for (and/or corporate endorsement of) a specific course of action is frequently a sign that the political and economic stakes (i.e. who gets what, when and how) associated with a given policy or course of action are relatively low from a macro-economic standpoint. Policies which can command support from across the political spectrum do not easily or obviously pave the way for more ambitious policy proposals down the line. They may sometimes paradoxically end up doing the opposite.

Finally, and most importantly, we have the argument that the central challenge here is not simply that state responses have been imperfect or incomplete, but that we must also grapple with the degree to which states have directly contributed to the creation of a series of related problems in order to advance other political and economic interests and ideological agendas. While none of these arguments suggests that positive changes cannot take place via political activism and mobilisation, they nonetheless point to different criteria for both current and future success, wherein the state (and other institutions) must be understood to play a much more dynamic – and complicit – role than simply responding to principled calls for reform from civil society activists.

Viewed in terms of a conventional model of civil society activism and state reaction, the Modern Slavery Act appears a key example of success, or at least progress, which can in turn be expected to pave the way for other more positive steps in the future. The fundamental problem with this evaluative standard, however, is that it presents a model of ‘success’ which is likely to be both short term and superficial, since the central role of the state in both creating and sustaining larger patterns of vulnerability and exploitation remains at the margins of the overall equation. This omission is important, because it suggests that any evaluative framework and associated political strategy that fails to adequately engage with foundational issues of state agency and complicity is unlikely to offer a sufficient platform for political activism. As we shall see below, these considerations also extend to patterns of international advocacy, where a further division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states comes into focus.

(p.67) The TIP Reports: new criminal sanctions and global good samaritans?

Numerous efforts to change the world have international dimensions, and thereby end up triggering political conversations amongst states, international organisations, corporations and representatives of global civil society. These conversations have attracted tremendous interest amongst researchers, with human rights and the environment emerging as focal points. In the case of human rights, which is the more relevant of the two themes here, we now have an extensive literature documenting how civil society coalitions and normative entrepreneurs have developed transnational advocacy networks through instruments such as information, alliances, shaming and leverage (Keck & Sikkink 1998; Della Porta & Diani 2015).

Much of this research into international activism has been informed by a broadly liberal sensibility, with a key goal being to demonstrate that numerous positive changes – i.e. ‘moral victories’ championed by ‘global Good Samaritans’ – have taken place, and that global political behaviour therefore cannot be reduced to material power and utilitarian calculations (Burgerman 2001; Brysk 2009). This liberal sensibility has also found expression in a recurring emphasis on ‘successful’ cases, wherein researchers seek to explain why and how specific political changes, such as the end of legal apartheid, banning landmines or the fall of communism, can be traced to patterns of global civil society activism, alliance formation and organisation (Klotz 1995; Price 1998; Thomas 2001). While such case studies played an especially important role in making the initial case for activism as a driver of positive change, it is also broadly agreed that ‘[h]umanitarian internationalism is more than episodic altruism – it is a pattern of persistent principled politics’ (Brysk 2009: 3). Applied to anti-slavery and anti-trafficking, this liberal sensibility tends to promote a view of slavery as a principled issue that operates either outside or above ‘day to day’ politics.

This literature on international activism also points towards a model in which there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states when it comes to human rights, although these specific terms may not always be used explicitly. Global problems routinely generate multilateral conversations, where states come together to negotiate and evaluate all kinds of international instruments, and to help shape the activities of relevant international organisations. These multilateral conversations generate political platforms and agreements regarding standards, so they are invariably targeted by political campaigners who attempt to recruit sympathetic states to their cause via persuasion and pressure (Busby 2010; Haffner-Burton 2013). States that end up being successfully recruited – which are invariably a small minority – are then in turn classified as ‘stewards’, or ‘Samaritans’, with the main idea being that they come to (re)define their national interests in ways that incorporate specific human rights causes and campaigns. According to Emilie Haffner-Burton (2013: 150), stewardship involves states using ‘muscle and money to advocate for the protection (p.68) of human rights’, with the two main mechanisms for effecting change being ‘punishments and rewards’. These are not regarded as a substitute for civil society activism, but are viewed as augmenting and extending campaigns from the same.

Such viewpoints contribute to a picture of international activism wherein ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ performing states emerge as a key target. The most influential attempt to come to terms with this theme is the ‘spiral model’ of human rights change, which identifies a series of five potential stages – repression, denial, tactical concessions, prescriptive status and rule-consistent behaviour – which can be used to analyse how states respond to calls for change (Risse et al. 1999, 2013). This model chiefly classifies state behaviour in terms of defensive and reactive responses, at least in the early stages, which are primarily designed to repress, dilute or delay calls for change. These defensive reactions from intransigent states are said in turn to generate a ‘boomerang effect’, wherein ‘[n]ational opposition groups, NGOs, and social movements link up with transnational networks and INGOs who then convince international human rights organisations, donor institutions, and/or great powers to pressure norm-violating states’ (Risse & Sikkink 2013: 18). Change is never certain, but to the extent that it does take place it is said to chiefly arise from cumulative efforts to overcome defensive responses from ‘bad’ states. If all goes well, this can pave the way for improved compliance (Smith-Cannoy 2012; Brysk 2013; Simmons 2009).

How and in what ways do these types of arguments, models and assumptions relate to the international politics of anti-trafficking and anti-slavery? To help answer this question, it is first necessary to make several brief observations regarding the global prevalence of these issues and the relative performance of states in addressing them. While most estimates of the global prevalence of slavery, trafficking and forced labour are speculative at best, they have nonetheless helped to promote an overall diagnosis that suggests that these problems are heavily concentrated in the Global South, or the developing world, along with specifically targeting countries such as India, Uzbekistan, Thailand and Haiti (Walk Free Foundation 2016; ILO 2012; US Department of State 2016). On the related question of performance, the pendulum generally swings the other way, with high-profile assessments by the US government and the Walk Free Foundation, amongst others, primarily but by no means exclusively endorsing the ‘superior’ performance of states in the Global North, or developed world. While there are some notable exceptions to this pattern, an impression has nonetheless been created that high performing/low prevalence states are concentrated in the Global North, while low performing/high prevalence states are in the Global South.

This global context is important, because it informs the ways in which many high-profile forms of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking activism have been formulated and evaluated. In keeping with broader patterns, international activism in this field is widely regarded as enlisting ‘good’ or ‘high’ performing states, which are chiefly located in the Global North, as allies in support of calls for change that (p.69) are primarily directed towards ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ performing states, chiefly located in the Global South. Once the political issues at stake are diagnosed in these terms, one of the main evaluative standards for success and failure becomes the degree to which ‘bad’ states end up responding to calls for change. And since reform remains uncertain, both punishments and rewards also enter into the overall evaluation.

The most high-profile elephant in the room is the United States, which has had a far-reaching impact upon global behaviour for nearly two decades now through its self-appointed role as an anti-trafficking ‘global sheriff ’ (Chuang 2006). The main vehicle for US anti-trafficking policy has been the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which has been published by the State Department since 2001, and which ranks governments based on their efforts to combat human trafficking. For the purposes of this chapter, the most consequential aspect of these reports is their role in seeking to monitor and evaluate global state performance. According to the 2016 report, the criteria used for these evaluations include state action in the enactment of new legislation, criminalisation and effective prosecution, victim identification, protection and reintegration, levels of funding and NGO partnerships, interventions to prevent predatory labour practices, and efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex. Using a minimum standards model, the TIP Reports rank states using tiers based on whether they meet minimum standards (tier one), do not meet these standards but are making efforts (tier two), are making efforts yet have further problems (tier two watch list), or are not making significant efforts to adhere to the standards (tier three) (US State Department 2016: 36–7, 46–7, 55–61). As we will see below, the question of rankings has become politically contentious, with charges that foreign policy considerations have shaped rankings.

The structure and impact of the TIP system have been carefully scrutinised, with one of the most contentious issues being whether receiving a poor or declining ranking can have an impact upon state behaviour (Zaloznaya & Hagan 2012; Gallagher 2012). This question partly arises out of a well-known provision within the TIP system for the US to withdraw or withhold humanitarian foreign assistance in cases where states are ranked in tier three. However, this potential punishment has frequently proved to be a dead letter in practice, so the focus has instead shifted to the non-material reputational effects associated with changing rankings. One recent attempt to grapple with this question comes from Judith Kelley and Beth Simmons, who argue that the history of TIP rankings suggests that ‘states are sensitive to monitoring, respond faster to harsher “grades,” and react when their grade first drops below a socially significant threshold’ (2015: 68). Their main metric in support of this conclusion is the degree to which domestic criminalisation of human trafficking can be connected to patterns of shaming and monitoring via TIP Reports. For Kelley and Simmons, the criminalisation of human trafficking should be regarded as a key marker of political success or progress. In support of this position, they argue that many states have been reluctant to embrace criminalisation, and that states are also likely to be resistant to shaming efforts thanks to the (p.70) undemocratic and corrupt nature of their regimes. Social shaming via a poor or falling ranking is therefore argued to ‘induce more compliant behavior’ (italics in original), despite political headwinds (Kelley & Simmons 2015: 61). Significantly, states are once again regarded as having been acted upon, with their behaviour being reduced to a largely defensive reaction to pressure and shaming.

Within the context of this chapter, the key question here is not whether or not Kelley and Simmons are correct in their analysis, but instead whether or not their underlying model for evaluating political success and progress can be regarded as useful or sufficient. To help answer this question, it is necessary to further expand upon some of the main arguments from the previous section, which are as follows:

  1. 1 The cause of combating slavery/trafficking frequently enjoys unusually high levels of ‘bipartisan’ political support in cases where it does not directly threaten major economic and political interests.

  2. 2 Criminal measures that are narrowly targeted against isolated and ‘exceptional’ cases will enjoy a much higher level of support and ideological acceptability than alternative or additional measures that attempt to challenge systems of exploitation and vulnerability.

  3. 3 Any analysis of state behaviour must take into account the key role of state complicity in enabling and sustaining conditions of exploitation and vulnerability in the first place.

These arguments direct our gaze towards issues that have been neglected or excluded from linear and reactive models of success. Firstly, they serve to highlight some of the problems inherent in treating the criminalisation of human trafficking as a decisive marker of progress or success. In 2016, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that 158 states (88 per cent of a dataset covering 179 states) had introduced laws criminalising ‘most forms of trafficking in persons’, marking a remarkable jump from only 33 in 2003. However, this extraordinary growth of legislation is also reported to have resulted in ‘very few convictions’ (UNODC 2016: 12, 47–53). This new legislation may well have been driven by US policy and other lobbying efforts, but the fact that so many states have taken action within such a short space of time must also be attributed to an underlying strategic calculus suggesting that there are many political scenarios in which major political and economic interests are not threatened by the criminalisation of human trafficking.

This strategic calculus is also tied to the fact that recent laws against slavery or trafficking tend to be narrowly targeted against ‘exceptional’ cases, which are in turn said to be chiefly concentrated in ‘developing’ states located in the Global South and at the ‘irregular’ margins of the global economy. This politics of exception can have the indirect effect of excluding other ‘normal’ practices or ‘lesser’ problems that are said to fall short of an ‘exceptional’ or ‘worst of the worst’ (p.71) normative threshold. There are currently hundreds of millions of ‘free’ labourers across the globe who routinely endure terrible wages, precarious conditions, unsafe and unhealthy workspaces, sexual harassment and assault, and bullying and abuse. They may well be formally ‘free’ to leave, in the sense that they can quit their jobs and seek other options, but their precarious status is nonetheless likely to make it very risky for them to quit, and their alternative options may be no better. Despite their predicament, recent campaigns against slavery and trafficking tend to exclude precarious ‘free’ labourers from their orbit of concern (Bunting & Quirk 2017).

This demarcation has considerable strategic and ideological appeal for many political and economic elites, especially in the Global North. This is because it portrays slavery and trafficking as forms of deviant criminal conduct that either disrupt or distort the operations of otherwise legitimate ‘free’ labour markets and ‘voluntary’ wage labour systems that remain foundational to global patterns of production, consumption and privilege. Any attempt to evaluate success or failure in this field must therefore grapple with the ideological and strategic appeal of slavery and human trafficking as a political platform, and with the extent to which investment and interest in this platform can end up deflecting or displacing activism on more challenging systemic issues. Whenever the globe is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states, there is invariably an element of (self-)validation and (self-)legitimation involved, wherein the privileged position occupied by states in the Global North is transformed into a positive attribute thanks to their ‘good works’ within the Global South.

The fundamental problem here, however, is that many problems in the world today persist because of, rather than in spite of, interventions and actions from the Global North (Broome & Quirk 2015: 829–33). Too many researchers and activists working on slavery, trafficking and forced labour structure their work around forms of methodological nationalism, where the sources of ‘bad’ performance are traced to internal failings of states and peoples within the Global South. Methodological nationalism tends to conflate performance and responsibility. Both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states are assumed to be responsible for their relative performance, yet there are usually many factors and forces which are responsible for any given outcome, including numerous external interests, actions and institutions.

One of the main implications of this overall line of argument is that it does not necessarily or automatically follow that ‘something is better than nothing’. Whenever we seek to evaluate the effects of political activism, we must at least entertain the prospect of some forms of activism ending up being compromised or counterproductive, rather than simply being ineffective, limited or grounded in tactical concessions, which are more familiar points of departure. As we have seen, the main issue here is the degree to which anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns can end up being politically compromised by what they do not say, and with the types of underlying connections and associations that they do not address sufficiently.

(p.72) The analysis of success and progress is further complicated by the argument that too many responses to human trafficking and slavery have ended up doing more harm than good, and therefore end up being counterproductive. Researchers have come to describe this disconnect between aims and outcomes in terms of ‘collateral damage’, which broadly refers to cases where state – and sometimes also private – interventions end up damaging marginalised and vulnerable populations that they are formally designed to help (Dottridge 2007). Common examples include police abusing those they are supposed to be assisting, immigration systems mistreating migrants with impunity, and people who have been ‘rescued’ from trafficking being subject to forms of incarceration, exploitation and abuse (Sharma 2005; Howard 2017; Bernstein 2012; Mahdavi 2011; Vance 2011; Musto 2016; Shih 2016). In addition to the collateral damage of specific policies, there is an additional critique concerned with how many anti-trafficking/-slavery campaigns have used a range of dubious ‘statistics’, self-serving narratives, and superficial and misleading images as part of their political advocacy, fundraising and awareness-raising efforts. Thanks to these sorts of distortions, it is argued that ‘[m]uch of what people think they know about trafficking and slavery is inaccurate, incomplete, or unfounded’ (O’Connell Davidson & Quirk 2016: 11). This can in turn result in expectations of ‘innocent’ victimhood and deviant conduct that can complicate the identification and support of precarious and exploited individuals (Vance 2012; Soderlund 2011).

It is also worth emphasising, moreover, that there have been a number of occasions when anti-slavery and anti-trafficking rhetoric has been harnessed to justify and defend all kinds of uncomfortable agendas. Take, for example, the justification recently given by President Donald Trump in his executive order declaring his commitment to ‘building a wall’ in order to ‘prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism’ (White House 2017). Comparable language has also featured prominently in speeches by European politicians as part of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean (O’Connell Davidson 2015b). If we look further back in history, we also encounter similar complications, such as the degree to which European colonial rule in Africa was justified in humanitarian terms, with the abolition of slavery playing a key ideological role in justifying unprovoked wars of conquest on the grounds that colonial rule would bring slavery to an end. However, this self-proclaimed ‘civilising mission’ was accompanied by massive violence, exploitation and dispossession, including the systematic use of forced labour under colonial rule. One especially notorious example of this trend concerns the devastating atrocities of the Congo Free State, a colony whose creation King Leopold of Belgium primarily justified to other European powers in anti-slavery terms (Quirk 2012).

As these sorts of examples help to illustrate, the politics of anti-trafficking and anti-slavery are not easily reduced to a compelling campaign for action from civil society and its ‘Good Samaritan’ allies which ‘bad’ states are obliged to reluctantly or defensively respond to. The politics of anti-slavery/trafficking are (p.73) instead more akin to the politics of humanitarian intervention, or the war on terror (Mahdavi 2013), where we have a multi-faceted and deeply political project that remains heavily contested in terms of its dimensions and applications, and which numerous actors have attempted to strategically and selectively harness towards their own distinctive agendas and interests with varying degrees of success. While humanitarian intervention has helped to alleviate disaster on occasion, it has also generated precedents and arguments that were deployed to justify the disastrous invasion of Iraq. While global terrorism is undoubtedly a major challenge, the ‘war’ declared by the United States would also be co-opted by states who had a strategic interest in labelling ethnic separatists and political enemies as terrorists, and was also used to justify and legitimate further securitisation, xenophobia, repression and surveillance. In both of these cases it is now generally accepted that collateral damages, selective applications, and political co-optation must be included as part of any overall evaluation of political effects or success (Freedman 2005; Bricmont 2007). The same type of political sensitivity is required when thinking about success or progress in relation to political activism targeting slavery, trafficking and forced labour.


Many forms of political activism and mobilisation are increasingly constrained and enabled by technocratic schemes, neoliberal logics and Faustian alliances with corporate and institutional interests (Dauvergne & LeBaron 2014; Krause 2014; Chuang 2014, 2015). High-profile campaigns targeting slavery, trafficking and forced labour have often been closely aligned with this trend. Part of this alignment arises from the fact that anti-trafficking has been constructed as a bipartisan and ‘non-ideological cause’, which people of good will throughout the globe should be able to support regardless of their other differences. This image of anti-trafficking as an exceptional cause that stands apart from ‘normal’ politics has played a major role in helping to generate attention and investment, but this attention has too often come at the price of a superficial and short-term diagnosis of the fundamental issues at stake.

This state of affairs presents all kinds of challenges for both researchers and activists. It is no longer – and probably never was – useful to think in terms of a rough division of labour between researchers who gather and interpret information and front-line activists who advance the cause, drawing upon some of the information researchers have collected. If we accept, as I argued above, that one of the main goals of research should be to advance efforts to ‘fight better’, then researchers must in turn regard patterns of political activism and mobilisation as one of their core objects of concern, rather than a separate issue which is best left to others. Within this perspective, there are several specific issues that are also worth (p.74) highlighting further. Making patterns of political activism a core object of concern cannot simply be an exercise in critique, but must also incorporate forms of strategic thinking and analysis that are designed to help improve, refine and advance efforts to change the world. In the specific case of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking, this frequently means focusing upon the type of things that high-profile campaigns do not say, and with the types of underlying connections and associations that they frequently struggle to acknowledge or address.

As we have seen, many high-profile anti-slavery and anti-trafficking campaigns fail to grapple with the underlying sources of forced labour, marginalisation and vulnerability, and thereby end up in pathways that target ‘deviant exceptions’ and ‘bad’ states. One of the core tasks of research should therefore be to develop and refine alternative starting points, strategies, alliances and arguments that contribute to a more significant and direct challenge to dominant political and economic interests. High-profile anti-slavery/trafficking campaigns enjoy high levels of support in many circles because they do not rock the boat politically or economically. How much can a campaign accomplish if much of its appeal stems from not making too many waves? Many widely celebrated markers of success, progress and ‘bipatisan’ support appear in a different light once underlying strategic calculations, ideological agendas and notable silences are factored into the overall equation.


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