Until lawyers start to pursue high-profile negligence cases, the status quo is likely to remain unchanged.
Modern slavery is a term that has entered our political and legal lexicon over the past decade or so but it is still something that is largely misunderstood. There have been occasional high-profile cases in the United Kingdom, such as recent case involving the Rooney family in Cambridgeshire and the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers in 2004. However, the problem is too often viewed simply through the lens of the criminal justice system as a serious but marginal concern.
The reality is that modern slavery is a tragic way of life for over 40 million people worldwide, with a further 150 million young people trapped in child labour.
Modern slavery takes many forms, including: forced labour (where the employee has little or no choice but to accept or remain in abusive work), human trafficking (the movement of a person with the intention of exploiting them for labour or sexual purposes) and bonded labour (the charging of fees and use of debt bondage as a lever of exploitation for workers).
The touchstone of all categories of modern slavery is the vulnerability of the worker. Those with rare or advanced skills have choices in the marketplace for jobs; those without skills or born into poverty or institutionalized discrimination have little choice but to accept whatever work may be on offer. All too often, that offer is designed to exploit and degrade the worker and some of the most vulnerable workers in the world are migrants.
Whether a migrant is moving to escape relative poverty, famine, war, disease or political oppression, they have one thing in common: they are all seeking a better life. Criminals understand this and see it as a golden opportunity to exploit the vulnerable. When migrants are transiting through ungoverned or poorly governed states, they are easy prey for the unscrupulous, as the slave markets of Libya horrifically attest.
Those of us lucky enough to live in relatively safe and prosperous countries in Europe and North America have long been able to see the shocking levels of poverty, inequality and violence that persist in much of the Global South. Now, thanks to smartphones and the internet, the young and ambitious living in those places can see the way we live and, perfectly understandably, they want what we have.
To date, our response to this phenomenon has been to build higher walls. We have spectacularly failed to use our huge political and economic power to improve the lives of desperately poor people around the world. Instead we support corrupt regimes and send our companies to extract their raw materials and labour for our own gain. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the dispossessed are taking matters into their own hands, particularly when the future they dream of is almost visible across a small stretch of water.
The economic imperative towards migration is already strong and with the effects of climate change starting to manifest themselves in higher sea levels and more intense weather activity, we are likely to see climate migrants soon. We need to do far more to engage with the drivers of migration and take much more seriously our global efforts at development assistance for those in need.
Our current response, making already perilous journeys yet more so or criminalizing those who feel compelled to make them, simply exacerbates vulnerability and delivers yet more victims to traffickers and abusive employers.
It is not difficult to see why the problem of modern slavery persists; it is the second most lucrative criminal trade in the world, after narcotics. In South Asia alone, there are thought to be almost 12 million people working in conditions of modern slavery, most subject to bonded labour practices. The $150 billion that is generated by modern slavery every year is recycled into other criminal enterprises and is used to further reinforce corruption and undermine democracy, transparency and the rule of law around the world.
Thus far, efforts to impose greater oversight and accountability on the actions of abusive employers have been timid. Governments opting for self-regulation or other light-touch legal regimes, effectively relying on the court of public opinion to influence corporate decision making. International efforts, such as the laudable UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, clearly and correctly identify the problem but are ineffectually implemented through anemic ‘national action plans’.
If John Ruggie’s 'Respect, Protect, Remedy' formulation was to be followed more closely, we may start to see meaningful change to commercial and governmental eco-systems. However, at present, we have the appearance of action but little real change. Many Western companies, and indeed governments, suspect that they have modern slavery problems in their supply chains that reach into vulnerable states, but prefer not to know the details, lest they be required to act. An analysis of the S.54 Modern Slavery Act compliance statements filed to date suggests that many companies, with some notable exceptions, are using it as an elaborate PR exercise.
At root, the problem of modern slavery is very simple: it is the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable by the strong and powerful. If the strong and powerful genuinely wanted to change the systems that lead to modern slavery, they could do so. It is not beyond the wit of man to design and enforce oversight mechanisms that protect vulnerable workers. Indeed, the technology and policy protocols underpinning ethical recruitment and management systems already exist but are woefully under-utilised.
The real problem is that too few organizations or governments view modern slavery as a priority. They perceive the costs of compliance to be high and the costs of failure to be low.
Unless and until law enforcement agencies start to use the abundant evidence of corporate wrongdoing to bring prosecutions, or until lawyers start to pursue high-profile negligence cases, the status quo is likely to remain unchanged.