Viewpoint: Human Trafficking or Modern Slavery?

Dr Alex Balch is a Lecturer in International Politics and European Integration

“What should we make of local Labour MP Frank Field’s request this week that human trafficking be re-named modern slavery?

“He has entered (perhaps unwittingly) upon a long-running debate about the definition of slavery, but his intervention also highlights how the UK’s fight against human trafficking is politicised and flawed. This is interesting considering the country’s historical role in the abolition movement – but the reasons for the UK’s difficulties in this area are not all obvious, or easy to address.

“Frank was speaking to publicise the launch of a report, `It Happens Here’, by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and he has written to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to express his demands.

“The authors of the CSJ report claim that the UK government’s efforts to tackle human trafficking have so far been a ‘catastrophic failure’. They propose a complete overhaul that would include (among the over 80 recommendations) new legislation and a new anti-slavery ‘commissioner’ – named as such to align with the aforementioned modification of terminology.

“There is much to agree with in this report, but an interesting question is why the UK government has left itself open to such severe criticism by a think-tank linked to Conservative MP, Iain Duncan-Smith.

“Despite national pride over Britain’s efforts in leading the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, two hundred years later the country is far from being at the vanguard of the fight against human trafficking.

“The UK was slow in signing two of the most important European instruments in the area: the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (2005) and the (2011) EU Directive on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Protecting Victims.

“In both cases political expediency eventually triumphed over initial reservations, but the lasting impression is of the UK as a ‘reluctant’ partner in the global fight against human trafficking.

“The CSJ report repeated and supported criticisms previously outlined by the NGO-led Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG) in 2010, and the report of the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings GRETA in 2012. What is the problem?

“Aside from the issues outlined in the report around implementation and legal complexity, one explanation might come from the culture within the organisation leading the government fight against trafficking – the UK Border Agency – which presumably fears that immigrants will ‘abuse’ the protections these agreements offer to victims.

“But perhaps a more important obstacle links to something less obvious yet more insidious: the ideological attachment to flexible labour markets at (almost) any cost. The consensus against ‘burdensome’ business regulation in British politics makes it exceedingly difficult to improve, enforce, or protect, basic employment rights.

“The plight of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) is illustrative of the problem. Set up following the tragic deaths in Morecambe Bay in 2004, and lauded as a successful model of regulation by many observers, the GLA only operates in specific sectors and has been under constant threat of closure or cuts from central government.

“Those working to protect employment rights argue that the crimes of forced labour and human trafficking are the tip of an iceberg. They conceal a much larger number of cases of worker exploitation that break employment – rather than criminal – law. The re-naming of ‘human trafficking’ as ‘modern slavery’ will probably irritate some who believe the strict definition of slavery must include legal ownership, but it will almost certainly serve to raise the profile of this horrific crime. A larger risk is that it will continue to exclude all but the most severely and criminally exploited workers from appropriate protection by the state. “

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