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What I’ve learned from the research on framing of modern slavery

Communications Director Jakub Sobik blogs his key takeaways from the research on the most effective ways of improving the understanding of modern slavery amongst the British public.

Published: 9th July 2024

When I first started working in an organisation working to address modern forms of slavery - nearly two decades ago - barely anyone knew that slavery still existed and the term ‘modern slavery’ wasn’t really used. Over the last decade and a half we’ve seen modern slavery becoming a part of the mainstream public debate.

However, there is evidence suggesting that many members of the British public don’t fully understand what modern slavery really entails and don’t take into account the full context of factors enabling it, from the lack of economic opportunities, to legal, social and cultural systems that set up situations in which exploiting people becomes acceptable, or easier to get away with. Additionally, the issue of modern slavery has increasingly become entangled in a controversial political debate on immigration, with new legislation introduced that evidence confirms is having a harmful impact on people who experience it.

As someone whose job it is to communicate effectively with the public to explain modern slavery and solutions to address it, I’ve felt increasingly frustrated not only with the public narrative around it, but also with the lack of evidence base that could help me to build more effective narratives.

Which is why I’m very excited about the research we’ve published today, carried out by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), experts in framing and effective communications. Although a small project which doesn’t lend itself to sweeping conclusions, I hope it will provide a starting point for conversations amongst the communicators, but also academics, policymakers, journalists and many others about how to explain modern slavery more effectively.

You can read the full guidance with recommendations on the most effective ways of communicating modern slavery, including a handy table of recommended dos and don’ts.

Here are some key takeaways I learned from the project.

1. The public do care about modern slavery, but the current ‘drama triangle’ gets in the way of understanding its full context

Our research found confirmed earlier evidence: the British public generally cares about modern slavery. However, its understanding of modern slavery is clouded by the most common way of describing it in the media, by the government and some organisations working on the issue, which is captured in a so-called ‘drama triangle’. That figure includes three main characters, often casting the government as the hero, cracking down on the villains (evil traffickers) who are capturing and exploiting defenceless victims, mostly women from overseas forced into ‘sex trafficking’.

The ‘drama triangle’ masks the breadth and complexity of modern slavery, leaving out the systemic factors, but also more specific solutions, from the regulation of the labour market, to comprehensive support systems for survivors, to social workers and teachers being able to spot the early signs and protect young people here in the UK being coerced into criminal gangs and forced to sell drugs.

2. Modern slavery is a problematic phrase – better to refer to concrete forms of exploitation

This might sound strange from someone working for the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre, but modern slavery as a frame often gets in a way of people’s understanding of the issue, triggering the association with the drama triangle above and clouding the wider picture. We found that talking about specific forms of exploitation instead seems to be more effective in explaining what modern slavery can entail. For example, talking about forced labour of men from the UK and overseas paid little or nothing on building sites or farms. Or, about children – many of them British - forced to move drugs across the country. It doesn’t mean abandoning the term altogether, but providing a concrete example first – and then referring to this exploitation as modern slavery later – helps the public to imagine what exactly we’re talking about.

"Talking about specific forms of exploitation instead seems to be more effective in explaining what modern slavery can entail."

3. We need to explain the structural drivers of exploitation

Referring to structural drivers and how they ‘set up’ conditions enabling exploitation is important and helps the public understand it’s not about individuals’ qualities, and by extension their fault, that make them vulnerable to being exploited. It’s also important to remind people that these structural drivers often may result from policy choices, and therefore changing them is possible: modern slavery is not inevitable.

4. We need to be specific about causes and solutions

The focus groups with the public made it clear: simply talking about ‘addressing wider root causes’ doesn’t cut it. People just don’t understand that what means – and I don’t blame them. We need to become better at naming specific policies that need changing to reduce the risk of harm. For example, rather than talking about for example addressing poverty or discrimination as root causes, it’s good to first name specific policies that could improve the situation, for example introducing more labour inspectors to inspect workplaces, then follow up with a longer-term wider solution.

5. Being guided by lived experience experts

Views of people with lived experience were crucial for our learnings and recommendations. A few key things came up strongly.

  • When talking about modern slavery, it’s important to evoke empathy, not pity. Lived experience experts found the term ‘victim’ disempowering, and preferred ‘person with lived experience’, which elicited strength and leadership. Most found ‘survivor’ also acceptable, with caveats that could be gendered and associated with sexual exploitation. What’s more, members of the public in our focus groups agreed that ‘victim’ evoked pity, while ‘person with lived experience’ and ‘survivor’ evoked strength and respect.
  • Modern slavery has little to do with individual choices. In fact, lived experience experts pointed to the lack of choices, caused by wider structures, that put them at risk of being exploited. They disliked describing them as ‘vulnerable people’, making it part of their identity.
  • There was a strong feeling that survivors need to retain control over their personal stories at all times, which unfortunately isn’t always the case. As one participant put it, ‘If I use my story for change, I’ll do it, but I choose.’

"If I use my story for change, I’ll do it, but I choose."

Modern slavery lived experience expert
  • Listening to lived experience experts was a hugely valuable experience. I’ve learnt a lot not only about their perspective on the language choices they see as important, but also that meaningful inclusion in a research project requires thinking it through properly at the start. Despite trying our best, we could have done a few things better, for example with our choice of remuneration methods for participation in the workshops. We’ll learn from them in the future.

Read the guidance, including a practical glossary of what’s better to use and what to avoid.