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We need to know more how modern slavery links with wider contexts

Blog by Prof Alex Balch: Why the new Modern Slavery PEC funding call focuses on the role of wider laws and policies on modern slavery.

Published: 13th October 2021

The Modern Slavery PEC was founded to transform understanding of modern slavery and policies to address it. In the consultation on our research priorities we carried out in 2020, we were told more work was urgently needed to better address structural and systemic factors underpinning modern slavery, and to explain how other, sometimes conflicting, political priorities may play a role.

This has been a growing issue in debates around modern slavery. Modern slavery in its many forms results from multiple, overlapping drivers, creating situations where exploitation becomes easier to perpetrate. These factors can include poverty, exclusion or simply lack of opportunities for people to provide for themselves and their families, and these are issues that are subject to a range of laws and policies that aren’t necessarily focused specifically on modern slavery. There is therefore an increased awareness that we need to address these wider contexts and systems and understand how they connect with each other in order to safeguard against modern slavery, and stop people getting trapped in exploitative situations.

Our next open call for research directly responds to this by providing an exciting opportunity for researchers to produce new evidence to demonstrate how these causal linkages operate. The call will support research that helps map future directions for laws and policies in areas such as immigration and asylum, labour market regulation, and criminal justice to help policymakers improve their design and implementation and reduce risks of modern slavery in the UK.

The potential value and impact of the new research that this call will support has been underlined by recent discussions about modern slavery, e.g. in the context of the UK government’s new plans on immigration and asylum, revelations about working conditions in the informal economy, or data showing growing numbers of children identified as victims of criminal exploitation through county lines.

"Modern slavery in its many forms results from multiple, overlapping drivers, creating situations where exploitation becomes easier to perpetrate."

We would welcome a range of applications that explore policy and practice in different areas of law and policy. For example, projects could look at the effectiveness of safeguarding in the context of health and social protection. In the area of sex work and modern slavery projects may seek to produce evidence regarding the ways in which different models or approaches to law and policy on sex work can have differential effects on modern slavery, or impact on those who are affected by modern slavery.

In relation to immigration and asylum, a project could develop evidence on the extent to which the new points-based system of immigration, or the operation of the asylum system, include adequate safeguards against exploitation.

In relation to the labour market, projects may choose to explore possible causal relationships between patterns of non-compliance on minimum standards in the labour market (for example non-payment of minimum wage) and modern slavery - to explore impacts on vulnerable groups or in order to inform enforcement strategy.

Projects may seek to develop an evidence base to inform how issues around modern slavery could be better incorporated in developing government priorities, for example on international development or international trade, as expressed in the recent Integrated Review, or how understanding of modern slavery risks could be integrated in specific areas of criminal justice, such as policies on drug-related crime.

The Modern Slavery PEC is uniquely placed, as a national network of research centres dedicated to this topic, to fund a portfolio of diverse but connected projects at a scale to answer these questions and together help to reveal the structural and systemic factors affecting modern slavery. Our remit to bring together researchers and policymakers means that we will work closely with the successful project teams to maximise the potential impact of their work and ensure that evidence is timely, relevant, trustworthy and accessible for policymakers.

The call has been developed in line with our strategic objectives, through collaboration with our partners, and with advice from stakeholders, policymakers and including people with lived experience of modern slavery. All of the research we fund is guided by our research principles of effectiveness, equity and survivor involvement.

In contrast to the previous Modern Slavery PEC open calls, the application process this time will have two-stages: the first stage will consist of a relatively simple expression of interest form, and then all those in scope will be invited to submit a full application. This decision to open up the application process, and particularly simplify its first stage, is part of our wider objective to enable more people to apply, reduce barriers to accessing funding for those who aren’t familiar with somewhat complex application processes, and to increase the diversity of applicants.

If you are interested in this call but not sure if you should apply, then please sign up to the webinar we will organise specifically for this call. The webinar will offer an overview of the funding call, a chance to ask questions about the call, including eligibility, scope and the application process, as well as providing more information on how successful teams will work with the Modern Slavery PEC. We hope to see you there.

Prof Alex Balch is the Director of Research at the Modern Slavery PEC.