I am a natural sceptic about the statistical reporting of social issues, and so too is Kevin Bales the co-founder of Free the Slaves – an international NGO that looks at the impact of global slavery. Similarly Nick Grono, former Chief of Staff to the Australian Attorney-General and now CEO of Walk Free. So I was in good company to hear about some of the issues behind the publication of their first ever global slavery index at the first in our “Lexis Lectures” series on Thursday 17 October 2013.
What makes this index so important is that it starts to build reliable metrics for the incidence of slavery in countries across the world and shines a spotlight on parts of the developed economy that we are so often ignorant about. By moving beyond anecdotal evidence of admittedly horrific examples, campaigners now have a tool that will enable them to better challenge governments about their response and to measure improvements over time. Annual reporting gives us a powerful way to measure the impact of legislation, the enforcement of basic human rights and steps taken to educate groups at the most risk of being trafficked abroad or lured into domestic exploitation. It also shows just how high those figures can be despite careful methodology and conservative numbers.
A large part of the challenge to uncovering cases of modern slavery is the narrative that we have built around the term “slavery”, held back by the historical construct of whips and chains. The reality is that most slaves are people who were motivated to improve their situation and were tricked into going with their captors, and then held by a mixture of intimidation, psychological harm and threats of violence to their relatives back home. Equally important is the threat of action by law enforcement authorities leading to deportation and perhaps actual physical violence by the authorities if they are found. When we consider how quickly our own immigration regime can be in transporting victims back to their communities just as soon as they are discovered you get a sense of the despair that can overtake victims when they consider asking for help.
The other element is at least partly cultural; the refusal by state bodies to interfere too closely in some traditional practices and partly the language that we all use to describe abusive activities. What if forced marriages were known as “bridal slavery” for example? Similarly, if someone approaches a parent offering a better life for their child, and paid work that they can send home to their brothers and sisters (and pays an advance on their wages) that might look like the selling of a child to an outsider. But it may have been an agonising choice for a parent that ends up supporting the exploitation later on as victims feel unable to rebel or escape lest it affect the situation back at home.
Another problem is the tendency to make assumptions about the “normal” victim or perhaps just look past people in roles that might be paid or, equally, might be indentured labour. The classic examples of this is when we encounter cleaners, cooks and labourers in service roles than often embarrass us and cause us to look away. In sex slavery, there’s also the wider issue of the commoditisation of sex and the use of women generally and how those who partake find ways to normalise the experience, perhaps believing that this is still better than the life these women left. The role of self-education and opening our eyes will become a bigger role in this movement over this movement, moving it away from a vague appreciation of sex slaves from Eastern Europe or Vietnamese child labourers in cannabis factories or whatever else ends up making the evening news.
In the discussion one key question from the floor was “what can business really do to assist with this?”. “Business can take it seriously” came the reply. In long supply chains it is easy to become inured from what conditions might be in factories in developing countries or who exactly is mining the raw materials necessary for their products. The challenge, our speakers said, is often how to speak with your competitors to share out the financial burden of investigating conditions in the field and ensuring that efforts can be co-ordinated more effectively. This also means that one marketplace can collectively address a problem before it becomes a reputational risk and manage any public backlash at the same time. Money talks and there’s no reason why it can’t say helpful things when necessary.
From the law reform perspective at a UK level, we already have regulations controlling gang masters, laws restricting long hours, and certainly against unpaid forced labour but the next frontier would seem to be imposing new duties to investigate situations that might otherwise fall under the radar. This is part of the idea behind proposals to make landlords investigate the immigration status of people they rent to for example. However, the message I came away with from this meeting was not that we needed further regulation in the UK but rather to stop assuming “it doesn’t happen here”, because it does.