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Communicating modern slavery in the UK

Project working with survivors to identify language more effective in increasing the understanding of modern slavery in the UK.

Modern slavery affects estimated tens of thousands of people in the UK, yet it is not widely understood. Current terms and narratives describing modern slavery are problematic and widely contested, from ‘modern slavery’ with its historical and post-colonial connotations (framing slavery as ‘ownership’ of one person by another and a person who experienced it a ‘slave’), to ‘trafficking’ with its links to movement, smuggling and migration.

There is evidence suggesting that the British public doesn’t understand what lies behind modern slavery, why it's happening, where it's happening and who it's happening to, and consequently what we should do to address it. The narratives widely used in the public debate tend to focus on rescue and catching the criminals, leaving out the more systemic causes behind wider systems creating conditions for modern slavery and factors increasing people’s vulnerability to it.

There is also growing evidence that language used to describe modern slavery is not accepted by some people with lived experience. Many survivors often don’t identify with the language used by policymakers or law enforcement, which might alienate them and prevent them from coming forward to be identified as victims, prevent them from seeking support or cause stigma in their local communities.

A project carried out by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), in close collaboration with the Modern Slavery PEC, aims to develop language that is more effective in explaining modern slavery to the British public and meaningfully engaging survivors in the public debate and policymaking.

The objective of this project is to provide an evidence base that would allow to:

  1. identify frames and narratives that would be more effective in increasing the understanding of modern slavery by the British public, enabling a more evidence-based and survivor-informed public debate.
  2. develop language in collaboration with survivors that resonates with survivors of modern slavery in the UK, enabling better and more meaningful engagement with authorities, support services, research and other areas of work addressing modern slavery.

The project will carry out a review of existing research and communications in the public debate, organise a workshop with people with lived experience of modern slavery to develop new frames and narratives about modern slavery, organise focus groups with members of British public to test the new frames and narratives, then organise a second collaborative workshop with survivors to identify which frames have the potential to increase the understanding of modern slavery by the British public.

The project will develop recommendations for frames and narratives potentially more effective in increasing the understanding of modern slavery by the public, as well as a short report on the findings, process, lessons learned, and further research questions raised by the project.

Image: Stokc photo by Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels/