No 20: Slavery never went away: how social policy can help eradicate this 21st century issue

Child labour is just one of the forms that modern slavery takes.
A child works in a factory in Pakistan, 2016. (FaiQe Sumer/Wikimedia Commons)

by Gary Craig

In 1966, when the Social Policy Association was being formed, if you had asked anyone on the street what they thought of when you said the word ‘slavery’, chances are that they would respond with either ‘Wilberforce’ or ‘the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, the American Civil War, or something to do with people working in appalling conditions in faraway countries. If you ask the same question now, you are more likely to get an answer hinting at the existence of modern forms of slavery including human trafficking or severe labour exploitation (forced labour), although that might still be a minority view. And most people would not think about it in terms of the UK.

Yet, that is now the reality. Even ten years ago, a Parliamentary answer from Harriet Harman to a question (prompted by growing awareness that the sex industry involved not only ‘normal’ prostitution but the forced prostitution of women brought into the country) indicated that there might be between 140 and 1,400 women trafficked into the UK annually. This answer, with its wide range, suggested both that the scale of the problem was relatively small and also that our intelligence was extremely limited.

Since then, this picture has changed as the scale of the problem has grown and our understanding of it has correspondingly increased. By 2010, the figure of those in forms of modern slavery in the UK was thought to be around 3,000. In 2014, a research study commissioned by the Home Office projected that the figure had risen to between 10,000 and 13,000. Yet, by 2017, the National Crime Agency, tasked with oversight of government response to this issue, suggested that the real figure was ‘tens of thousands’.

Based on the growth of the numbers being referred for help, this could mean a minimum of perhaps 30,000. To put this into context, this might mean that a medium-sized city such as Hull, where I work, would have around 200 people held in forms of modern slavery at any given time, or perhaps 300 over a period of a few years. Government finally recognised the scale of the problem when in 2015 it introduced a Modern Slavery Act (admittedly rather weak and incoherent) which received all-party support.

Data worldwide has correspondingly become more available and more precise. However, partly because some states do not provide data (and indeed, some use slavery as a state instrument for punishment) and partly because, unlike the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slavery is now illegal in most parts of the world and thus a hidden crime, it is not easily susceptible to measurement. The number of prosecutions remains pitifully low in every country and there are currently seven police forces in the UK that have yet to bring charges against perpetrators.

Modern slavery now takes many forms: forced labour, sex trafficking of adults and children, cannabis farming, domestic servitude, forced begging, organ farming, child labour, and, in areas of conflict, child soldiers.

Social policy has a proud record of identifying, researching, mapping and offering usable policy solutions to a wide range of social issues. It has contributed enormously to presenting policymakers with potential answers to the rise of poverty and homelessness, the maldistribution of health resources, the continuing scourge of racism and the uneven educational performance of children across the country, to name but a few examples. It has yet to make a significant impact on the issue of modern slavery (although there are now four universities — Hull, Liverpool, Nottingham and St Mary’s ― which have created centres to address it). There are still relatively few academics engaged in serious and wide-ranging research in this area, although, providing some hope for the future, the number of PhD students focused on it is increasing steadily, as evidenced by a growing body of work at these four centres. The core social policy curriculum, although it is concerned with relevant issues such as poverty, gender, inequality, exploitation, the labour market and migration, has yet to make significant space for discussion of modern slavery as a 21st century issue alongside other key modern phenomena such as globalisation, the growth of drug-taking, privatisation and the social implications of the rise of new forms of communication.

This is a serious gap in our portfolio. Judging by the past twenty years, we can expect that this may become an issue affecting — directly or indirectly — as many people as may, for example, be affected by other kinds of crime, such as drug trafficking. Social Policy needs to embrace this issue and play its part in ensuring its demise. It can do so by ensuring modern slavery has a clear place in its curricula both as freestanding courses and as parts of relevant themes (as listed above); by providing support to and joining local partnerships working on the issue through research and intelligence (as some academics already are doing); and by encouraging the development of local studies. I am working, for example, with the student Anti-Trafficking society to establish how well companies in York are doing in relation to ensuring that slavery is not present within the supply chains of businesses operating in the city. This is just one example of how social policy academics can get out of the academy and contribute to the wider struggle against modern slavery.

Gary Craig is Emeritus Professor of Social Justice at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull and Visiting Professor at four other universities. He is currently working on a book about the Modern Slavery Act and will publish a Global Handbook on Social Justice in July.

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