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Ethics in modern slavery research

A project exploring the key ethical issues involved in conducting high-quality modern slavery research.

A multi-disciplinary research project led by the University of Liverpool and University of Nottingham is investigating the key ethical issues involved in conducting modern slavery research, informed by the perspectives of people with lived experience.

Research ethics covers the benefits, harms, agency and equity of the research, including decisions on structure, scope and methodology, as well as what happens after the research is completed. Modern slavery research poses many potential ethical considerations, including ensuring that researchers use their skills to serve communities and participants, rather than the other way around, and that they utilise existing data to minimise unnecessary requests made on survivors. The power imbalance between ‘researching’ and ‘researched’ individuals needs to be acknowledged and mitigated, and ways to foreground survivor inclusion on terms that are respectful and jointly devised, can help build capacity among peer-researchers, allies and research institutions to co-produce robust academic research.

Including people with lived experience in research is essential for improving policies addressing modern slavery and has been shown to produce better outcomes. But there’s a need to do this in ways which are both meaningful and ethical, especially as a growing number of research funders are requiring survivor engagement.

Risks to researchers of vicarious trauma, or carrying out fieldwork in high-risk sites, especially in supply chains research also exist. University research ethics committees have to respond to submissions from a wide range of disciplines, and might not always have the experience of the specific issues that arise in modern slavery research.

There’s a need to better understand the common ethical issues of modern slavery research, as well as to identify current best practice in embedding ethical survivor engagement into projects.

This project aims to do this through three interlinked workstreams; first through a desk-based review of pre-existing ethical and safeguarding guidance; then research with focus groups, as well as expert consultations including those with lived experience of modern slavery, modern slavery researchers, members of research ethics committees and NGOs and community groups which have participated in modern slavery research. Finally, it will create a review of current research ethics practice in modern slavery research and offer guidance on possible techniques, practices and structures that can improve this.

Research team: Wendy Asquith, Helen Stalford, Edmira Bracaj (University of Liverpool), Bethany Jackson (University of Nottingham), Kimberley Hutchison (independent consultant).