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Re-framing modern slavery: from isolated cases to structural injustice

For work against modern slavery to be effective, it has to address the root causes of exploitation and the structures that enable it, blogs Dr Maayan Niezna.

Published: 12th June 2023

Modern slavery is not merely an isolated problem caused by individual perpetrators. It results from economic, social, and political structures, where the law is not just the protection, but often the cause of exploitation.

Smugglers and deceitful recruiters take advantage of vulnerable individuals desperate to find employment abroad. Abusive employers then exploit workers, offering low payment for dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs rejected by workers with better options. Criminals take advantage of debt and destitution to coerce their victims into illegal activities. These individuals are all targeted by criminal law enforcement initiatives aiming to tackle trafficking and slavery.

None of these individuals, however, operates in a vacuum. Their actions have legal, economic and political contexts. Criminal exploitation cannot be isolated from violations of labour law. The exploitation of migrants cannot be isolated from migration policies that render both documented and undocumented workers more vulnerable. Poor employment conditions are related to a lack of effective labour inspection and enforcement. Prison labour creating profit for private enterprise reflects broader trends of privatisation. The affluent couple forcing their domestic worker to work around the clock, eat leftovers and sleep on the floor takes advantage of a visa regime that denies the worker alternative employment options. The construction crew recruiting homeless and isolated men into construction work in poor conditions, seven days a week, for £5-10 a day, could only do so because economic and social policies left these men without alternatives.

While states adopt criminal laws and enforcement measures that target the perpetrators, they often ignore the way their own laws and policies create situations in which exploitation is widespread and perpetrators thrive. For anti-slavery efforts to be effective, they have to look wider and deeper, identify the root causes of exploitation, and aim to address not isolated incidents, but structures of exploitation affecting thousands of workers.

In May 2023 the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford hosted - as part of the PEC workstrand on human rights as they relate to modern slavery - an event that focused on the role of laws and policies in creating the structures of exploitation. The event launched Prof. Virginia Mantouvalou’s new book ‘Structural Injustice and Workers’ Rights’ (OUP 2023).

For anti-slavery efforts to be effective, they have to look wider and deeper, identify the root causes of exploitation, and aim to address not isolated incidents, but structures of exploitation affecting thousands of workers.

Dr Maayan Niezna

The book develops the concept of ‘state-mediated structural injustice at work’, and analyses legislation that appears legitimate but results in large-scale labour exploitation. It explores four case studies that illustrate such state-mediated structures of injustice. The first is the case of migrant workers, and vulnerability resulting from migration and employment policies and restricted access to the labour market. The second case, of captive workers, considers work in prison, community service, and immigration detention. The third case study is of welfare-to-work schemes, exploring the conditions of the working poor and the impact of welfare conditionality. The final case study is of precarious workers: agency workers and workers on zero-hours contracts. Following the discussion of these case studies, the book explores the potential of human rights law, and its use by lawyers, courts and activists, to change structures of injustice and exploitation.

The book launch event included insights and comments from experts on migration, labour law, human rights, trafficking, and social justice. It included reflections on migration and precarious work; human rights obligations and grounds of discrimination; modern slavery and the Illegal Migration Bill; clustered disadvantage and structural injustice; the role of courts, the legal constitution of markets and other issues arising from the book. A recording of the event is available here.

The growing attention to structural injustice is crucial for the anti-slavery effort. More attention should be directed at visa regimes and migration control measures, at privatisation of core state functions and reliance on for-profit actors, at precarious forms of employment and exclusion from labour rights, and in the role of the state in rendering workers vulnerable.

Dr Maayan Niezna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Modern Slavery and Human Rights at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, at the University of Oxford. She is a Modern Slavery PEC Research Fellow, leading the University of Oxford’s work as part of the Modern Slavery PEC Consortium partner-led work strand. Follow her on Twitter at @M_Niezna.

Photo: Karolina Grabowska via Pexels.