Modern slavery: a moral project built on sand

Despite the headline-grabbing figures, the evidence for modern slavery is feeble.

‘The world is watching: we have to get [the Modern Slavery Bill] right’, said Labour MP Frank Field following the publication this week of the Modern Slavery Bill Report.

Modern slavery is certainly talked about as if it were a clear and present danger. In 2012, US president Barack Obama said there were over 20million victims of human trafficking, or to give it ‘its true name: modern slavery’. ‘It is barbaric and it is evil and it has no place in a civilised world’, said Obama.

In August last year, UK home secretary Theresa May likewise felt ‘modern slavery’ was a palpable enough problem for it to deserve a new legal focus – the world’s first anti-modern slavery bill, in fact. ‘It is scarcely believable that there is slavery in Britain’, she said, ‘yet the harsh reality is that in 2013 there are people in this country forced to exist in appalling conditions and often against their will’.

Since then, modern slavery has continued to be talked up as if it is a really existing thing, an ‘evil in our midst’ as May has taken to calling it. So in November, when the strange case of the Brixton ‘slaves’ was still dominating the headlines, before it became clear that the story was about as watertight as a sieve, May seized her chance: ‘It is all around us, hidden in plain sight’, she wrote in the Telegraph. ‘It is walking our streets, supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind the curtains in an ordinary street: slavery. Something most of us thought consigned to history books, belonging to a different century, is a shameful and shocking presence in modern Britain.’

Steve McQueen, the director of the award-winning 12 Years A Slave, even gave the cause a showbiz gloss. ‘I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery, and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today’, he said when accepting the Oscar for best picture last month. He was even at it this week, saying of a parliamentary committee reporting back on May’s Modern Slavery Bill that ‘the authors of this report can honourably stand in that tradition [of William Wilberforce]’.

But there’s one big fat problem with this rather disturbing obsession with modern slavery: it doesn’t really exist. Sure, there are cases of economic exploitation or cases of physical coercion, and many other socio-economic relationships in between. And you can reclassify these relationships as ‘slavery’. But to suggest as Obama does, and as May continues to do at every opportunity, that slavery proper, complete in all its brutal and bonded reality, continues to exist is an assertion built on sand.

Take the figure of 21million bandied around by anyone determined to convey the severity of the problem. This comes from a UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour. The clue is in the title (as in ‘forced labour’ rather than the far more emotive ‘slavery’). That’s right, the ILO’s figure of 20.9 million is an estimate, or more accurately, a guesstimate. As even Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, admitted in a recent radio programme, the ILO’s methodology and data sources for the figure of 20.9million are shrouded in mystery.

Not that Bales is averse to scaremongering, but at least he admits to the figure’s speculative nature. So, having reclassified other types of dubious socio-economic relationship as ‘slavery’, and managing to bulk up the global enslaved figure to 27million, he readily confesses: ‘We may be completely off the rails, I can’t deny that.’ Even May, when pushed, is forced to admit that modern slavery is a problem in want of a hard, factual existence. Responding to an interviewer’s question about where she obtained a figure of 10,000 for the number of slaves in the UK, she concedes that the ‘honest position is that we don’t know whether there are fewer or indeed more victims’.

In fact, the absence of anything amounting to evidence actually fuels the crusade. It allows politicians and campaigners’ dark imaginings to grow. That the problem can’t be seen is proof that it’s hidden; that the cases of forced labour which most closely approximate modern slavery are rare is proof of the submerged iceberg of slavery yet to be discovered; that modern slavery is unseen, unverifiable and unrecognised is proof of just how big a problem it really is.

Such is the logic of a moral crusade. Because that is what this determination to construct an evil to be rectified amounts to: it’s a moral crusade. Or, to put it another way, it’s a moral project, driven by campaign groups and fastened on to by politicians, in which the aim is to make society aware of a perceived evil and, in the process, grant to the crusaders the appearance of being virtuous.

Just listen to the self-aggrandising tones of the crusaders. ‘In the nineteenth century, British politicians sought to abolish the international slave trade and end one of the most deplorable practices in history’, said Field this week. ‘Their hard-fought victory remains one of our parliament’s finest achievements. We must not betray that legacy.’ When they’re not trying to insert themselves into the abolitionist tradition, they’re busy making it all about themselves. As May said last November: ‘Tackling this abhorrent crime is a personal priority for me.’

This obsession with modern slavery has got nothing to do with tackling a problem out there in the world of ‘fields, factories or nail bars’. Rather, it is all about addressing the existential angst up there in the minds of morally disoriented political elites. If modern slavery didn’t exist, they’d have to invent to it. Which, in a way, they have.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

Picture: PA

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