Modern slavery: myth or reality?

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, Garden RoomContemporary Controversies


After becoming prime minister in July 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as the ‘great human rights issue of our time’ and claimed that an estimated 10,000 people in Britain were living in slavery. Since then, modern slavery has regularly featured in the news and a host of campaigns have been set up to raise awareness about the issue. Every major corporation and institution seems to have made a commitment to fighting modern slavery in their mission statements.

Political proponents of these anti-slavery campaigns argue that slavery did not end with abolition in the nineteenth century, but continues to permeate society, albeit in different ways to the past. The CNN Freedom Project, which aims to shine a light on modern-day slavery, boldly claims that ‘there are more slaves today than at any time in history’.

While there is no universally accepted definition of modern slavery, it usually refers to forced labour, sex trafficking, bonded labour, forced marriage or even poorly paid and harsh working conditions. This broad definition has led to some unease about the use of the term.  In a 2017 article for the Anti-Trafficking Review, Anne Gallagher criticised the term for seeking ‘to encompass under its expansive umbrella a raft of exploitative practices and a myriad of victims: from the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram to the abused maids of diplomatic households in London and Washington’. Is Gallagher right to be concerned? Do modern slavery activists wrongly conflate different forms of exploitation under the banner of ‘slavery’?

Claims about a modern-slavery epidemic have also sparked concerns that we may be trivialising the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. Should we be wary about comparing contemporary instances of human trafficking, forced marriage and depraved working conditions with the historical crimes of slavery? Or does worrying about the terms and quibbling over language distract from real-world problems that need to be addressed?

Furthermore, is the modern-slavery discussion part of a broader trend that relativises the problems of contemporary society through the prism of the horrors of the past? Take for example US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent comparison of US migrant detention centres with Nazi concentration camps, or the comparisons so often made between Trump and Hitler or between Brexit Britain and 1930s Germany. Are such historical comparisons helpful or distracting, or does their use imply that today’s society is at a loss for words to describe contemporary challenges?

How should we characterise the gross exploitation of exploited people? Do we need new language to describe the problems of today? Is it really slavery or is that the wrong way of understanding it? What are the consequences for an institutional focus on modern slavery?