Fighting against slavery? Pull the other one

Anti-traffickers promiscuously use the s-word in order to present themselves as heroic rescuers of fallen women.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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Following a series of Channel 4 TV programmes that charted the shocking stories of abuse and exploitation of so-called ‘modern-day slaves’ – women and children from abroad coerced to work in Britain as domestic servants and prostitutes – it is important to make one thing clear: slavery was abolished 200 years ago and it has not returned.

Thankfully, for all Channel 4’s promiscuous use of the s-word, today there are no open markets where men, women and children of a certain colour are bought and sold like cattle, shipped across the world in horrific conditions, and forced to labour against their will with no remuneration. Of course, Channel 4 didn’t literally claim that these eighteenth-century practices still occur; instead it suggested that thousands of foreign women and children are made to work in slave-like conditions, behind closed doors. Nevertheless, the moral imperative to free these people from their metaphorical chains is as strong as the one that eventually abolished the transatlantic slave trade, the programmes implied.

Does it really matter if well-intentioned individuals and TV producers are taking liberty with labels? Isn’t objection to the use of the word slavery simply academic nitpicking, when the main aim should be to help exploited people by any means necessary?

Actually, a critical look at the Channel 4 programmes makes clear that all this ‘slavery’ talk and ‘anti-slavery’ campaigning is only helping to put migrants and would-be migrants into a submissive relationship with police, charities and feminist activists who fancy themselves as modern-day abolitionists. These self-styled rescuers may get a moral boost from their campaigning against ‘modern-day slavery’, but there aren’t many clear benefits for the victims they purport to be rescuing. In fact, often these fantasy, feministic rescue operations result in the deportation of migrants who have invested a great deal of time and money in coming over here to work.

The Channel 4 programmes were: Britain’s Secret Slaves, an investigative documentary about domestic workers; I am Slave, a drama based on the real story of a Sudanese girl kidnapped, sold to an Arabic family, and then brought to Britain as their domestic servant; and The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers, in which a film crew followed police carrying out a nationwide investigation into enforced prostitution in Britain.

In all programmes, three distinct roles were assigned to those involved. First, there were the Dodgy Foreigners – Middle Eastern diplomats who abused their Asian domestic servants; African rebels raiding villages and kidnapping children to sell to wealthy Arabs; Asian pimps. Second, there were the Foreign Victims – impoverished women and children, adrift in the world and with no power to exercise personal agency. And third, there were the rescuers – white and British police, charities, feminists and filmmakers.

These films did show that history is repeating itself – but what is really making a comeback is not slavery, but the ‘white slavery’ panic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Only where that panic focused on the potential for Western women to be forced into prostitution abroad by evil Chinese, Indian or African men, today’s trafficking panic focuses on the potential for Third World women to be forced into prostitution by evil Chinese, Indian or African men. It was during the white-slavery scare that the term ‘trafficking’ first emerged. The way in which this alleged ‘trafficking’ was reported back in the nineteenth century, and the moral impulses of those who tried to fight it, are eerily similar to today’s anti-trafficking initiatives.

In a 1999 paper, Jo Doezema, a British academic, outlined how fears and anxieties around mass migration, sexuality and the role of women have infused both the old white-slavery panic and the new trafficking panic. At the turn of the century, the white-slavery scare was triggered by a rise of Western women, at a time of increased mobility, venturing abroad to find work, including as prostitutes. And the modern trafficking panic also emerged at a time of borders opening up and people from poorer parts of the world gaining more opportunities to travel.

During the white-slavery scare, there was a growing concern that foreign men – especially Africans, Jews and the Chinese – might kidnap Western women and force them to work as prostitutes. As with today’s traffickers, they were said to have used force, deceit and drugs to lure women across borders. Then, as now, there was a disproportional focus on women and children – and little appreciation of the fact that women, even if in circumstances of duress, are capable of taking active decisions to leave home.

Back then – just like today – conferences were organised, international agreements were signed and new laws were passed, including restrictions on women’s travel. Media reports, novels and plays were written, and state authorities, early feminists, religious associations and puritanical organisations collaborated to put an end to the trafficking of women by foreign sex pests and money-hungry thugs. The victims of ‘white slavery’ were presented as innocent, pure and virginal girls who were subjected to extreme violence, humiliation and disease. The perpetrators were depicted as mafia-like, often working in collusion with corrupt governments – much like those Asian mafia men and Arab diplomats featured in Channel 4’s documentaries.

As Doezema points out, various studies have shown that the white-slavery scare had little basis in reality, and was instead driven by fears that foreigners would violate respectable Western women and corrupt Western society. And while protective measures were introduced under the guise of ‘helping women’, the underlying moral concern, Doezema argues, was with controlling women.

Today, too, undocumented migrants are widely regarded as being pawns in the debased games of trafficking rings. Yet while kidnapping, coercion and maltreatment certainly occur, the fates of undocumented migrants to the West are really in the hands of what Laura María Agustín has termed ‘the rescue industry’.

In her book Sex at the Margins, Agustín (interviewed on spiked here) describes how ‘rescuers’, even when well-intentioned, end up denying the agency of large numbers of working-class migrants. They treat them as ‘passive subjects rather than as normal people looking for conventional opportunities, conditions and pleasures’. Agustín argues that ‘the victim identity imposed on so many in the name of helping them makes helpers themselves disturbingly important figures.’

Just consider the British police officers featured in The Hunt for Britain’s Sex Traffickers who helped carry out Pentameter Two. That operation was heralded as ‘the largest-ever police crackdown on human trafficking’, and it led to the conviction of precisely zero people for forcing women into prostitution. As one journalist has pointed out, the key witness relied on by the police officers – and by Channel 4’s documentary makers – was not actually rescued by the police, but by one of her punters and his ex-wife. Yet viewers were made to believe that there is a clear link between the hundreds of raids carried out as part of Pentameter Two and the rescue of this witness (who was genuinely forced into prostitution in demeaning circumstances).

On Channel 4, the police were allowed to present themselves as knights in shining armour. There was no mention of the fact that two thirds of the 255 women ‘rescued’ by police during the Pentameter raids in 2006 and 2008 quickly dropped off the radar, declining to be helped by the authorities. This led one researcher to conclude that many of these women were simply in Britain to earn money – just like other migrant workers – and just wanted to get on with it rather than be ‘rescued’. The fact is that migrants from poor parts of the world can earn a lot more money in the sex industry than in other lines of work and they would not regard being arrested in a police raid as a form of ‘rescue’. Sixteen women – alleged victims of trafficking – were deported following the Pentameter raids. How helpful.

Illegal migration involves great risks for migrants. They are vulnerable to exploitation, with some held in flats against their will or forced to work long hours for very little pay. Yet the government and anti-trafficking campaigners only end up strengthening borders, by raising suspicions about every man, woman or child moving here from ‘over there’. It is not in migrants’ interest to be described as slaves. This only gives a moral boost to their self-appointed rescuers, who are involved in what Agustín has labelled ‘a colonialist operation’.

Overblown anti-slavery campaigns are really about rescuing the flagging reputation of the British police, government officials and others. Most migrants probably experience these campaigns as patronising and restrictive.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. She is speaking in the debate Trafficking: new slave trade or moral panic? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 31 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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