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Who should be ‘spotting the signs’ of modern slavery?

July 25, 2018

This piece was awarded the Human Trafficking Foundation 2018 Anti-Slavery Day Awards for ‘Best opinion piece dealing with modern slavery or human trafficking’.

In recent years, there has been a growing number of campaigns calling on the general public to participate in identifying victims of human trafficking and forced labour by ‘spotting the signs’ of modern slavery. Despite increasing popularity, the effectiveness of such campaigns is questionable. Often, they rely on a racialized narrative of victims and perpetrators, and shift responsibility from government to consumer, ignoring the structural causes of trafficking and forced labour.

Engagement versus effectiveness

‘Spot the signs’ campaigns are based on the idea that teaching the public to identify signs of exploitation will lead to greater identification and protection of victims. People are asked to be alert for signs of exploitation and to report any suspicion. Indeed, increased awareness of modern slavery can lead to more public engagement: members of the public were responsible for 61% of calls to the Modern Slavery Helpline in 2017, with a spike in calls during the time a major ‘spot the signs’ campaign was in the media. Yet, 45% of all substantive calls received by the helpline were not related to modern slavery, leading to questions about the effectiveness of this approach in identifying victims. While access to advice and support for victims of trafficking or those who suspect modern slavery is critical, the public should not be made responsible for identification of potential victims.

Racial bias and victim identification

The expectation that members of the public should actively identify potential victims of trafficking is problematic because they are neither properly trained, nor sufficiently made aware of the context that allows exploitation to develop and thrive. Most of the information available to the public stems from campaigns and media that portray a very specific type of victim – migrants, often with insecure immigration status, who are brought to the UK and exploited by criminal gangs, who are, in most cases, the same nationality as the victim – despite the top nationality for recorded victims in the UK being British.

Intentionally or not, this narrative portrays certain nationalities as both inherently vulnerable to and responsible for exploitation, without sufficiently recognising the complex drivers of human trafficking for labour exploitation. FLEX’s research into the construction sector has shown how exploitation results from a series of policies and practices that allow unscrupulous employers to take advantage of others. Insecure employment arrangements, deregulated labour markets and restrictive immigration policies are some of the structural factors that allow labour abuses to occur. When such abuses go unchecked, they can develop into severe cases of exploitation.

Without a meaningful explanation of how exploitation develops, public awareness campaigns and calls to action risk leading to racial or ethnic profiling by targeting people based on their racial, ethnic or national characteristics, and not by their actual experiences. Focusing on certain groups as inherently vulnerable to and responsible for exploitation allows for a constant surveillance of specific nationalities deemed as ‘high-risk’ and removes the focus from drivers of exploitation. To prevent this, awareness raising campaigns and the media should portray victims’ diverse experiences in combination with the structural context in which exploitation develops.

Shifting responsibility

By placing responsibility for identifying and safeguarding victims onto members of the public, ‘spot the signs’ campaigns shift responsibility from governments to consumers. This is commonly seen in discussions around exploitation in global supply chains, where consumers are expected to keep businesses accountable by ‘voting with their wallets’. One of the reasons this approach is not effective is because the public has limited knowledge of what goes on in companies’ supply chains. While the UK Modern Slavery Act requires certain companies to report on their efforts to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains, recent FLEX research found serious limitations to the information made available to the public through such reports.

Instead of shifting responsibility for identifying exploitative workplaces to the general public, the Government should address the drivers of labour exploitation by funding labour inspectorates to undertake proactive investigation and identification. Since having its remit extended across the entire UK labour market, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has seen a modest £2 million increase to their budget. Not surprisingly, the UK’s labour market enforcement activities continue to be predominantly reactive, mainly responding to complaints received, despite evidence that proactive approaches enable detection of violations before they turn into severe exploitation. To tackle modern slavery, the Government must also ensure that all workers have access to safe employment terms and contracts, are aware of their rights and can enforce them, irrespective of their immigration status.