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It’s time to listen to people with lived experience of modern slavery

An Anti-Slavery Day blog from a person with lived experience of modern slavery.

Published: 18th October 2021

This blog was original published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We like to think about ourselves as humane, open minded, compassionate, kind, selfless, generous. As a person who was affected by modern slavery here in the UK, I met many people who accepted people coming to the UK from abroad looking for a better life. People, who often prior to coming knew little or nothing about your culture and traditions, perhaps struggled to communicate in English, but who now might need support. It takes guts to be generous, to treat others them the way you would like to be treated.

However, it is one thing to be generous to others, it’s another thing to meet the needs of the other, in the way they would like the needs to be met. I think that the only way to meet the need of the one you are trying to help is to communicate effectively with the person you are trying to support. And that means listening.

I’m writing about this because today is Anti-Slavery Day, and the theme of the day is listening to people who went through the experience of modern slavery. I think listening is one of the most important elements of any response to modern slavery and day-to-day support to people who are affected by it. But, listening to people like me is not yet embedded in the policy and programmes designed to address the problem.

Modern slavery has been rising prominence in public debate in recent years. Whilst a few years ago not many people knew what modern slavery meant, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening, it was just downplayed or not understood. Today, thanks to humanitarians, non-governmental organisations and the faith of some who are consciously and continuously have worked hard to raise awareness about it, we have managed to put modern slavery on the public agenda and start subsiding the stigmatisation that comes with being a victim of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Yet, people with lived experience are still largely absent from the debate around modern slavery, especially when it comes to developing policy and legislative solutions to address it and support survivors in appropriate way that fulfils their needs. This keeps me wondering: how much more effective would these policies and programmes be if the views of those most affected were included in their formulation? When the voices of the very people that the policies are trying to protect are not heard, how can these policies be effective?

We do have a problem with modern slavery in the UK. There are around 10,000 individuals referred to authorities as “potential victims” each year, but the real scale is thought to be much higher, with some estimating the number of people affected at over 100,000. Yet, in 2019, only 239 people were charged for modern slavery. Much remains to be done.

It is time to start listening to people with lived experience of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Let’s get them involved in decisions and policy-making because they are experts through experience. That’s what meaningful inclusion would mean: listening to us as experts, rather than asking us to re-tell our stories of exploitation to pull people’s heart strings and catch their attention.

From the individual perspective, meaningful inclusion would foster acceptance, bring speed into healing and recovery from our scary past. It would enhance healthy transition from being a victim to a survivor. It would give us a sense of giving back to the community, being a part of a just course and empowerment.

Including people with lived experience would also enhance and improve the outcomes of research on modern slavery, which provides the evidence and feeds the conversation on policymaking. I say that because I’m working with the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), advising it on survivor inclusion in its research and policy work. I take part in research funding reviews, panellist meetings reviewing research projects for grant awards and other work-related meetings.

I watch myself daily growing in confidence and self-worth, as I thrive in this opportunity to make a difference and give back to the community, as well as earning a decent wage. All the members of staff I have worked with have not treated me differently in any way, I feel accepted, valued and included, I am not pushed to take up any role or responsibility that I don’t want to or feel ready for.

There are many more people like me, who could provide their perspective and expertise in the work addressing modern slavery. We should use them.

Meaningful inclusion of people with lived experience of modern slavery would require rethinking the way we do things. From research, allowing survivors lead on design and implementation of projects, to policy and practice, putting mechanisms in place to always include them at the decision-making tables. But it comes down to really listening.

So today, on Anti-Slavery Day, we should stop, take stock and think how to do it meaningfully and effectively. It is #TimetoListen.

Modern Slavery PEC is recruiting people for an Expert by Experience Review Panel to inform the assessment of applications for funding of research projects on modern slavery and its links to wider laws and policies, as part of its current funding call. Please find the details of the role by clicking below.