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Anti-Slavery Day 2019: What are we talking about when we talk about ‘modern slavery’?

October 17, 2019

Ahead of Anti-Slavery Day tomorrow, our senior advisor Emily Kenway reflects on how communications shapes anti-slavery action.

Does how we talk about ‘modern slavery’ matter? It might seem unimportant to consider, so long as action is being taken to address exploitation. But the stories we tell are crucial; they construct our understanding of why exploitation happens and what needs to be done to stop it, and therefore are vital to ensure we’re selecting the right kinds of solutions.

In physics, there’s something called the ‘observer effect’, a theory that says merely observing a phenomenon will alter it. It tells us not to be so sure that when we do something, it doesn’t impact the thing to which we’re doing it. Communication functions similarly; how we talk about something changes what we think we’re seeing. Research shows that you don’t just receive information and process it ‘objectively’; it’s funnelled into your own pre-existing notions which affect what you think that information means.

If we want to be certain that we’re creating change in the world, we need to consider how the language we use and the ways in which we tell stories are going to be understood by people, based on their prior experiences and pre-formed expectations. Media is crucial in this regard; most people get their understanding about exploitation, its drivers and solutions from the news. Whilst power-holders like politicians and policy-makers also likely read expert research, they are likewise consumers of general media, and therefore we view it as important for shaping their thinking too.

Communicating to create change: how is the media talking about ‘modern slavery’?

So, what kinds of messages are people receiving about modern slavery from the media? And how do they serve, or fail to serve, genuine and lasting solutions? To begin a process of understanding the answers to these questions, we undertook a mapping project of how exploitation is discussed in the media. We wanted to know the ways in which modern slavery offences are talked about, what types of stories tend to be run about them and what this means for how these offences are understood by journalists and the public. This will help us to understand what needs to happen next.

We reviewed over 150 news articles from a six-month period that contained key phrases, including ‘modern slavery’, ‘human trafficking’, ‘labour exploitation’, ‘anti-slavery’, and more. We identified four key ways in which these issues were reported:

  • Crime – these stories are reported solely as criminal justice / law enforcement issues, involving victims and perpetrators
  • Consumer – these topics are reported as issues that consumers can solve by making different purchasing choice
  • Factual episodic – these are reports that are purely factual information about a recent arrest, prosecution, conviction etc and don’t tie to any wider narratives or deeper causes
  • Systemic – these topics are reported as related to wider structural drivers, including labour market issues, immigration policy and deregulation

Overall, we found that reporting predominantly fell under the ‘crime’, ‘consumer’ and ‘factual episodic’ categories, with the smallest proportion of articles taking the ‘systemic’ approach. A significant number were highly critical of government policy, but this did not mean they took a systemic approach – rather, that they critiqued government behaviour within the bounds of the ‘crime’ frame, for example discussing low prosecution rates.

What does this tell us about how modern slavery is understood?

In communications, ‘framing theory’ tells us that people tend to understand information via mental shortcuts. These shortcuts, or ‘frames’, are comprised of mental structures that help us to understand new information quickly. Specific words, phrases and imagery activate specific frames, helping your brain to make a shortcut in order to understand the incoming information with less effort. For example, if I say to someone who’s lived in the UK during the post-financial crisis years, “we need to tighten our belt,” a range of associations, values, problems and solutions will come to mind relating to the economy, austerity, ideas about the UK economy as a household budget, and their own political leanings. This phrase immediately slots into a particular conceptual frame they have in their mind, as someone who lived through a specific political period and has consumed print and broadcast media. As Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tannen puts it,

“people approach the world not as naïve blank-slate receptacles who take in stimuli…but rather as experienced and sophisticated veterans of perception who have stored their prior experiences as an organized mass. This prior experience then takes the form of expectations about the world, and in the vast majority of cases, the world, being a systematic place, confirms these expectations, saving the individual the trouble of figuring things out anew all the time.”

So when we talk about modern slavery mainly through the approaches identified above, we are activating particular understandings and, through doing that, we are including some things in the picture, but leaving out others.

We can consider this finding in relation to Anti-Slavery Day activities. In the ‘crime’ or ‘consumer’ approaches, it makes total sense that the Day’s activities focus primarily on awareness-raising, because if it’s a problem that’s predominantly to be solved via law enforcement or public engagement, then making people more aware of it will turn into more reports, more rescues and more convictions. And this has often been the focus of the Day; for example, to mark Anti-Slavery Day 2018, iconic and important buildings including the Home Office, 10 Downing Street, town halls and major shops were lit up red. However, if actions were shaped by the ‘systemic’ viewpoint, we might imagine the Day being marked by bold policy announcements that would tackle the drivers of vulnerability, such as repeal of the ‘illegal working’ offence or better social safety nets for those who might become destitute.

We need to change the modern slavery story

At FLEX, we want an end to exploitation. Communications are vital to achieving this aim: they can help the public, politicians and policy-makers to understand what really causes vulnerability to exploitation and therefore what must change in order to end it. In academic and expert circles focused on tackling trafficking and exploitation, there are commonly understood to be two paradigmatic understandings of ‘modern slavery’ offences. One takes a criminal justice and law enforcement approach; it conceptualises the problem as an exceptional category of harm, separable from wider labour market abuses and something that can be solved predominantly by policing and prosecution. The other takes a systemic, labour rights approach; it conceptualises the problem as something which does indeed require law enforcement to hold perpetrators to account, but which can only truly be solved by addressing deeper systemic causes. In the words of Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, National Police Chiefs Council Lead for Modern Slavery,

“It is not just about law enforcement and the Crown…The demand on modern slavery is driven by an economic contract of the United Kingdom.”

Our analysis has shown us that much more work needs to be done to ensure this deeper, systemic understanding shapes the modern slavery stories we’re telling and being told. FLEX is keen to work with the sector and with journalists to support this. As thinker Walter Lippmann put it in his 1922 book, Public Opinion, “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.” If we put unsystemic stories into our collective imagination, we will choose unsystemic actions to create change. Put bluntly, this means more human harm and no end to modern slavery offences.

Over the coming months, FLEX will be working hard to reshape the narrative around modern slavery, as we always have done. Our hope is that by Anti-Slavery Day 2020, the stories we’re telling point more clearly towards the deeper changes our society and those at risk of exploitation need.