Modern slavery has become a major talking point in recent years.
Many of us are familiar with the statistics: 40.3 million people are a victim of modern slavery, half of which perform forced labour. While not uncontentious, these figures are now well-known thanks to the advocacy of public figures and politicians.
While the abuses described by the term modern slavery do sadly occur, there are reasons to suggest that modern slavery is being weaponised for political purposes.
The big, invisible problem of modern slavery allows the global system of production – and its exploitative features – to continue relatively unopposed; it is a useful tool in trade wars and it helps to control the borders.
A common cause and a vague one
Modern slavery is a non-partisan issue. No one in their right mind is in favour of slavery.
Problematically, “modern slavery” is ill-defined: it evokes historical slavery and the most shocking kinds of exploitation. Neither of these facts does people being exploited much good.
The term modern slavery describes abuses such as forced marriage, domestic servitude, bonded labour, and other forms of exploitation where labour is performed under the threat of punishment without the possibility for victims to leave the abusive situation.
Modern slavery is obscured from view while simultaneously occurring right under our nose. It taints the products that we all consume every day, while every business is at risk of being linked to modern slavery that occurs deep in their supply chains.
There is truth to all of this. And yet, without trivialising the abuses that people suffer, we should ask why politicians have become so devoted to addressing this elusive problem.
'Other people have it worse'
Arguably, modern slavery is hyperbole that shifts the “Overton Window”.
This term refers to the broadening of public debate: notions that were previously deemed to be radical become more commonly accepted when the Overton Window expands.
Why is this relevant for modern slavery?
Up until a few years ago, few people would have been familiar with modern slavery. In contrast, the existence of sweatshops in developing countries was relatively well-known. Slavery, however, was considered a thing of the past.
Crucially, conditions in sweatshops do not technically constitute modern slavery. People in sweatshops generally do not perform labour under threat and are usually free to leave.
To be clear: people working in sweatshops do have their labour and human rights routinely violated, but they are not commonly subjected to forced labour.
The point is that all the attention for modern slavery detracts from “lesser” abuses such as long hours, low wages, disregard for health and safety in the workplace, repression of organised labour, and other forms of hardship experienced by workers.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that if fashion brands would have inspected their supply chains looking for “modern slavery”, they would likely not have prevented the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed 1,134 garment workers.
A wild goose chase
The UK introduced its Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and Australia followed in 2018.
The acts require entities meeting a revenue threshold to report on modern slavery risks in operations and supply chains, actions taken to address the risks, and progress being made.
Both the Modern Slavery Act in the UK and in Australia were introduced by conservative governments. This is remarkable for several reasons.
Conservatives have a dislike for “red tape”, they are not the defenders of the downtrodden and they are typically free marketeers and champions of global trade.
Why would conservatives go against their own ideological agenda? The answer is simple: they are not.
No red tape is created, as there are no sanctions for non-compliance. In the UK, two in five companies are non-compliant. Entities do not regard reporting to be too onerous either, with the average length of statements of ASX200-listed companies being only eight pages.
Conservative governments have also not suddenly become the champions of the working people. In both the UK and Australia, conservative governments suppress wage growth, undermine job security and agitate against trade unions and their members.
Finally, by producing modern slavery statements, business operations and supply chains arguably become sanitised.
No modern slavery found? Nothing to see here!
A tool in the trade war
I am not, of course, suggesting that modern slavery does not exist, or that businesses should not examine their operations and supply chains to identify labour exploitation.
What I am saying is that there is a significant degree of political opportunism at play.
The attention to the plight of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region in China is an example of this.
While concerns expressed by Western governments about forced labour in Xinjiang are justified, they became especially prominent in the context of the trade war between Western nations and China, while the abuse of Uyghurs has been known for two decades.
A bill proposed in Australia would prohibit the import of goods produced using forced labour. Similar legislation already exists in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 64 goods from 41 countries as being tainted by forced labour.
At present, 62 “Withhold Release Orders” have been issued for goods from 11 countries, meaning that U.S. customs are holding these goods. 44 of such orders (70 per cent of the orders that have been issued) relate to goods from China.
While China is the workshop of the world, and although concerns about forced labour are legitimate, modern slavery does seem to be used as a tool in the trade war with China.
Control of borders
The UK and Australia are countries where border control is something of a political fetish.
The Australian Border Force (ABF) is responsible for the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act, including offering guidance to reporting entities about compliance, a task that the corporate regulator (ASIC) or the workplace regulator (FWO) would arguably be better at.
On the first day that the Australian borders reopened for international travellers, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) immediately expressed concern that criminals would seek to exploit eased travel restrictions by trafficking people and exploiting them in Australia.
The attention towards human trafficking and modern slavery seems to have a lot to do with deciding who gets to enter and possibly stay in Australia, and under what conditions.
The UK is also a good case in point, where some must wait over 500 days to see whether their claim to be a victim of trafficking or modern slavery is confirmed by authorities, or whether they will be prosecuted for a crime they may have been forced to commit.
The proposed UK Border and Nationality Bill adds insult to injury.
It seeks to introduce deadlines by which modern slavery victims need to come forward to be eligible for support and it increases the burden of proof against which the claims of abuse will be tested, while limiting the situations in which leave to remain in the UK is granted.
Australia will review its own Modern Slavery Act in 2022. Australians should also be on the lookout for a Draconian border bill, introduced in the name of addressing modern slavery.
Martijn Boersma is Associate Professor of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
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