This interview with Freedom United’s Executive Director, Joanna Ewart James, was originally published in openDemocracy.
Joanna Ewart-James is the executive director at Freedom United, an international organisation working to end modern slavery. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery spoke with her on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the UN Trafficking Protocol to discuss whether or not it is better to be on the ‘inside’ of the anti-trafficking and anti-modern slavery project, or to defend a more radical viewpoint centred on labour rights from the fringe.
Neil Howard (BTS): What does your instinct tell you about whether or not we’re better off on the inside of the project to end ‘modern slavery’?
Joanna Ewart-James (Freedom United): The language you use and how you try to tackle the issue within that framing is, I argue, more important than whether you are trying to effect change from within an institution or not. I differentiate between actors who see modern slavery as an aberration to normal society, and the position I hold that it is actually for a large part a systemic problem. That it’s a result of a system where labour protections are weak, discrimination thrives, and where priority is often given to other matters like immigration policies, cheap prices, and fractured supply chains. In my view these causes make exploitation almost inevitable.
I’ve always talked about modern slavery. As much as it’s simply an umbrella term that doesn’t have a specific conceptual meaning, that puts me on the inside of the ‘modern slavery framing’. But inside that inside, I’m not part of the camp that says this is an aberration or crime that isn’t accepted. I say, ‘No, it is accepted. Of course it’s accepted. That’s why it happens so much, because we do tolerate it.’ That’s where my position is different.
I see the language of modern slavery as helpful because this is pretty shocking – the way that people are exploited really is serious. There are of course many forms of exploitation. It’s a continuum, and some forms are less severe than others. At the extreme end it’s particularly dark, and I think it should be recognised for that.
It’s important to realise that the things that need to change to address the most extreme forms would also address other forms of exploitation – those that don’t meet the criteria of what’s widely understood to be captured by the broad concept of modern slavery, like forced labour and bonded labour. They’re going to help. For example, there have been some really interesting developments lately around the 1930 Tariff Act in the United States. Under section 307 of this act US Customs and Border Protection should prohibit the import of goods produced through forced labour. It has increased its enforcement efforts in recent months. This ‘inside’ mechanism has the potential to turn expectations of what is acceptable – no forced labour – into a shift of better working conditions for those producing those goods.
Now, the Tariff Act is obviously a political mechanism. That’s the way it was first established, and perhaps the way it’s still used. But I do wonder how much the US government actually recognises its potential for changing a system in which forced labour is endemic. Does it realise just how many goods would have to be withheld at customs if it was going to properly enforce that provision? It really would be a lot.
Neil: So the strategic takeaways are that a) the term modern slavery can be used to mobilise people because of its extreme connotations; and b) the measures for tackling these extreme forms of abuse are likely to have positive knock-on effects for everyday exploitation – forms of abuse that aren’t quite as serious as what is called modern slavery but that are caused by the same systemic issues. Is that right?
Joanna: Yeah, that’s right. I’d like to add that while not all forms of exploitation are extreme, a significant portion of systemic exploitation actually does fit the bill. More recent pieces of legislation, like the International Labor Organization’s Forced Labor Protocol, pick up on that. Now, this is a tool from ‘the inside’ – it’s part of the core standards providing fundamental rights – but the language in it clearly points to a problem in the current system. Article 2 (d) makes clear the need to protect migrant workers from abusive and fraudulent practices during recruitment. It may not use the term modern slavery but in talking about the role of recruiters, it points to changes needed in the ‘main system’.
I completely concede that there is a real lack of attention in the inside world regarding the systemic nature of forced labour. A lot of topics we pick up at Freedom United aren’t seen as systemic or as trafficking issues by others in this space. A key one would be forced prison labour in the US. We have been actively campaigning on this, targeting the corporations contracted to detain people, seeking divestment, and even pushing for modification of the constitution, which currently allows slavery as a punishment for crime under the thirteenth amendment. And I think that making it clear that these examples are actually modern slavery, for want of a better word, wakes people up to the degree of exploitation, how linked into the system it is, and the seriousness of the problem that we’re facing.
Neil: So you’re saying that the terminology of modern slavery has such gravity attached to it that there’s almost a political shock value attached to using it. The standard comeback to that position of course, made by critical academics as well as others, is that by defining modern slavery as the worst of the worst and then focusing in on that, you implicitly normalise less severe, everyday forms of exploitation. How do you respond to that?
Joanna: I’d begin by reiterating that ending the most extreme forms will inevitably tackle the more everyday forms. There are lots of different examples around domestic abuse or women’s rights, for example, where successfully tackling the most extreme form has had knock-on effects on the more everyday forms.
Starting with the most extreme forms is also a way of building recognition. Society at large doesn’t yet accept that these conditions are unacceptable. In other words society right now tolerates the extreme exploitation of other people. And at worst, that looks like modern slavery. Given that status quo, how do you bring about the shift in social values that you would need to address everyday forms of exploitation if you don’t even challenge the most extreme forms of exploitation that constitute modern slavery?
So we have a job to do. We need to open eyes to what this exploitation is that we’re talking about, and get society to say, ‘Actually no. That’s not on. I’m calling that out.’ I think it’s too easy to dismiss if you just talk about everyday exploitation. People will say, ‘Oh, well, they’re migrants. They just want to work all the time and it’s better for them here than it is at home. At least they’ve got a job.’ That’s the narrative that we hear all too often from the naysayers. It’s a really hard problem – how do we galvanise society and shift society’s values so that we are more intolerant of the whole range of exploitation?
I don’t think it should be about using shock and horror for the sake of it. It’s about tuning into what we have already agreed is not acceptable. If you go out and do a poll, you’ll find that people agree that slavery is not acceptable. There’s not a debate about that. So by using that language, we’re already a step ahead in ending this egregious exploitation. Now, the problem that we’ve had, especially in the UK prior to 2014, has been to get people to acknowledge that it’s relevant to us today. People have said, ‘Yes, slavery is not acceptable,’ but they’ve also said ‘it’s history’. There was no connection between this value of slavery being not acceptable and the conditions under which people are exploited today. But we’re starting to see a change.
So I’m not saying that we should use the term modern slavery because it has shock value or because being sensationalist helps us. I am very much against sensationalising anything in this topic, as in fact I find it very unhelpful. That’s not the reasoning. My reasoning is to get people to recognise that what they’re seeing doesn’t align with their values. That’s a job to do. And I just think we’ve already partway there when we use the term modern slavery, because people know that’s not acceptable – they just don’t see what’s happening.
Neil: So it’s about rhetorically framing the issue as something that is clearly beyond the realm of what is acceptable – in doing so, you hope to get people to realise that so much of what we don’t actually accept is happening on an ordinary basis?
Joanna: Exactly. The UK is a great example for this as we’ve seen such a shift over the last decade. People now report instances of everyday exploitation. Take car washes. A few years ago nobody really took notice of the working conditions at car washes, or thought they were something to worry about. Now they say, ‘Oh, this thing, I know that isn’t right, slavery, oh my God, it’s happening here.’ And that’s not all. The thought continues with, ‘I want to do something about it.’ That’s my reason for using the language of modern slavery.
Neil: I certainly see the rhetorical power of the term, and I can certainly see the argument for using it as you have suggested here. At the same time, I’m still concerned that the extreme nature of the term modern slavery serves to make lesser forms of exploitation appear normal and a bit, well, ‘meh’. I’m worried people will say, ‘what’s happening over there isn’t an issue because it’s not modern slavery’.
Joanna: I think part of the problem is the fact that the messaging used by those on the inside doesn’t always support my proposal, or if you like my theory of change. A lot of the messaging that uses the term does what you’re describing – it normalises everyday exploitation while sensationalising the extreme forms. That’s not helpful. It’s part of the problem. If it isn’t presented in the way that I’m describing – as a wider endemic problem – then of course it just makes you question the whole approach.
Neil: I appreciate that caveat. Modern slavery is also a term that seems to unite people across the political spectrum. There are folks taking a structural and more radical stance like you, but you’ve also got boardrooms, Tory politicians, billionaire philanthrocapitalists – people who typically are not aligned with any sort of progressive economic reform agenda. What does it say to you as someone who critically uses this term that so many pillars of the establishment also use it?
Joanna: Let’s go back to my example of the US Tariff Act, because I do genuinely wonder whether there’s any thought or conversation at the administrative level about the broader economic implications of implementing it properly. Withholding the goods is one thing, not insignificant, but are they actually going to try to get real evidence of what’s going on? Politics aside, this mechanism has the potential to lead to structural change, but whether it actually does of course remains to be seen.
I think, again, the UK is a great example here. Theresa May, the previous prime minister, really hung her hat on tackling this issue whilst at the same time implementing a number of policies that actually perpetuated it. It really undermined the whole agenda because, on the one hand, the UK was politically trying to cast itself as a leader in tackling modern slavery, while on the other hand essentially pushing people into modern slavery through its incredibly restrictive and discriminatory immigration systems in particular.
I don’t know if it’s unique to modern slavery, but the concept certainly does have political attraction and at times the people using it are serving their own interests.
Neil: That’s the thing. In my analysis, when people like Theresa May or Donald Trump vociferously say ‘I’m against modern slavery’ or ‘I’m against trafficking’, what they’re doing is trying to position themselves as morally good. And so one of the things that worries me about this powerful terminology is that is provides a type of cover for politicians presiding over structures of discrimination and exclusion. By associating themselves with modern slavery or with trafficking, it allows them to claim that they’re good and they’re moral and that they stand with the downtrodden. As someone who uses this terminology and who engages with them, how do you respond to that?
Joanna: I wouldn’t challenge what you just presented. I think it’s real. It’s also true for a lot of things. You could say the same thing about corporate responsibility more broadly. I have big question marks myself around the ability for big business to reverse engineer to be ethical operators. But I think we can say that there have been some improvements despite, perhaps, the political conflicts around the whole modern slavery agenda. The examples I gave around the general public and the UK being much more cognisant of the way that extreme exploitation manifests itself today is really a result. And I think you can’t deny that it’s a result of the fact that we have had some very big names and very high-profile attention given to the language. I don’t think it would have happened without that language.
Neil: OK, but given your structural framing of this issue as well as your general politics, why don’t you go for broke and say, ‘borders are the issue’, or ‘capitalism is the issue’?
Joanna: Interesting question. I guess right now I don’t see a specific opportunity to mobilise around. I am not against having a campaign around it. But I think the real challenge is, what chance is there to leverage change that is as big as that?
I think there are opportunities to leverage change in that in a small way – for example making sure that asylum seekers have a right to work. That’s a really mini version of challenging the restrictions on people who come into the country. I don’t know what a campaign would look like that just said, ‘Let’s open our borders.’
That said, for more than fifteen years I’ve been involved with an organisation called Global Justice Now. When they first started talking about open borders my first thought was, ‘Ooh, how’s that going to work?’ Historically they’ve worked successfully on structural issues around trade justice. But it’s been really interesting to see how they’ve created space around the concept of open borders. I’ve been surprised that there has been the political space to do that. So I think it’s possible, but the way that Freedom United is structured as an institution means that we have to work within the structures that we have.
The other example you gave me was capitalism. Again, it’s a really, really big topic. How do you shift a whole world? You can try, but you’d definitely be on the outside and it’s hard to see how you could actually make progress. It’s not that we don’t see the problems, but we are trying to get some small improvements quickly enough that they will actually change lives right now.
Neil: So having a concrete leverage point with a concrete potential win is really important, as while ‘big change’ might be desirable it’s difficult to conceive of how you would organise to achieve it?
Joanna: That’s a fair recap. And I’d stress that you can get notable improvements from those small changes now, even if you’re doing them within the confines of a system that isn’t really in favour of what you’re trying to achieve.
There’s a slight chance that could be changing. Looking at global politics and trying to be optimistic about it, which I almost never am, I’d say that thanks to Trump and the growth of nationalism there is definitely now more space for radical conversations than there was. That’s a great thing. We’re seeing it in different ways, and if we can hook it to this framing of slavery that is supposedly internationally recognised as a human rights violation, then happy days.
Discrimination, which we haven’t talked about at all, is another one of those really clear systemic issues that is tightly connected to tolerance of exploitation.
It’s interesting to see how that’s been handled by ‘the inside’. Discrimination is recognised as an underlying factor in exploitation, including extreme forms of exploitation that could be termed modern slavery. But it’s not being addressed systematically. We’ve talked about it quite a bit at Freedom United in our posts and in our content. But, returning to the point I made at the beginning, it’s more regularly framed as an aberration from a norm by others in the modern slavery space than as a systemic problem.
Neil: Too true. In my own research, I’ve found that many people who have been labelled by policy-making institutions or by the state as ‘victims of trafficking’ or as ‘victims of forced labour’ reject these terms. They experience these terms as somewhat dehumanising. They understand themselves as having chosen to do what they are doing because it was the best choice from among the available options, or because they saw it as a pathway to something better. What do you make of that? How does the rejection of the terms by the people labelled with them impact your thinking around using them?
Joanna: Good question. I think that this was a much more common position in the past than it is now. I remember being in a round table group of about twenty odd organisations that were working in this space about a decade ago. We were discussing the term modern slavery, and in particular we were asking what the people who have experienced it feel comfortable with and what they don’t feel comfortable with. At the time there were only two people in the room that felt comfortable with the term modern slavery, partly because of the exact reason you mentioned. There’s still a stigma attached to it and it’s not always something people want to be associated with, but I think it’s changing.
It once again all goes back to framing. There’s a real tendency in the sector to be very victimy towards those who are suffering. One of the things that I’ve talked and written about consistently is that it’s a bizarre sector in its lack of lived experience within it. You can’t imagine a gay rights movement with so few gay people working in it, or a disabled rights movement with everybody able bodied. But that’s close to what you’ve got in the anti-slavery sector. It’s really odd, and I think that is why you’ve got this failure to recognise how and when you use the language in a way that’s appropriate.
So we have to be able to back up our language use and be able to justify why we use the terms we do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use the modern slavery label in a way that is respectful and empowering for people who have lived experience. Making sure you do so is really important.
I completely get why many people reject the label. As an analogy, think about when you fall victim to a scam – you just feel like an idiot. ‘Oh, I can’t believe that happened to me.’ It’s a bad outcome, but it’s simply something that happened to you. Or, as you say, some people have little choice but to accept bad working conditions. They go into it knowingly and hope something half decent might come out of it. It’s at this point that you get into one of the massive questions in the sector: where is choice real in any given context?
Could you really choose to get into an unventilated container on the back of a lorry in Belgium to cross the sea? Were you just really stupid about it? Or did you just think, ‘I can’t get a visa and so many other people have done this journey successfully, the driver says there’s no other way and that he will keep the ventilation going, so I just have to take that chance.’ Obviously, your whole judgement changes very dramatically according to what circumstances you’re in at that moment.
At the end of the day, I think you can say that even though Freedom United uses the language of trafficking and modern slavery – a language that many people are uncomfortable with – we can still talk about survivors’ experiences and let their views and opinions form how we present their stories and narratives. This is why we’ve really pushed hard on our ‘My story, My Dignity’ campaign, which is all about representation and presentation. And I think it’s super important that we’re always reviewing how can we be better allies in the sector, because that’s what we are.
Neil: It’s heartening to hear this kind of critical self-awareness, especially because in my experience it’s not all that common in this sector. So if the goal is to help and improve as allies, what needs to change in the field to make that possible?
Joanna: First, we need to create a space where people who have experience, who can very well articulate what needs to change, feel welcome. Second, we need to ensure that they have opportunities to be a part of the movement. And third, the opportunities need to exist for them to lead the movement. It’s mad that it’s so rare at the moment.
There are many different things that we can do to make that happen. A really simple thing is asking yourself how you communicate about the topic. How do you talk about it? How are you conveying people’s stories – how do you represent them and their experience? At Freedom United, we have people with experience leading our campaigns. They communicate in their voice to our supporters.
For example, we recently sent out a story that was written by a man named Raymundo, who was trafficked from Central America to California to work under coercion on a farm. Thankfully he’s now in decent farm work and so in a position to call for change in law so that there’s more control over foreign labour contractors – so they’re all licenced and regulated. We sent this message out in his words, under his name, in both Spanish and English. Another of our campaigns, on ending forced child marriage in the UK, is fronted by Payzee Mahmod – a woman who, along with her sister Banaz, was forced into marriage by their father at sixteen and seventeen years old. Payzee has been campaigning for change and so the obvious person to speak to Freedom United supporters.
When people with lived experience front campaigns then it leads to better communications. If you’ve got no perspectives from people who’ve experienced it, I’m not surprised then that you’re not creating appropriate content or that you’re not working in a way that creates space for them to be part of what you’re doing. And these are really simple things that can be done right now.
The lack of their voices, of their presence, of their leadership is such a systemic issue. It’s not surprising, because many survivors are too busy trying to navigate often complex and restrictive immigration systems, and access the support they need to recover, basically survive the day to day. Not all, of course, but many. They face discrimination in so many ways, and it makes it very difficult for them to have the opportunity to lead in this space.
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