BOOK REVIEW: The Truth About Modern Slavery by Emily Kenway

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4/5 stars

Modern slavery is discussed almost constantly in the UK; I had certainly heard the term before I moved here, but it seemed to guide more of political life than I realised. I wasn’t quite sure why every website I visited had a link to the company’s Modern Slavery Policy. I knew why there were glaring, red-and-black posters in Polish in the ladies’ bathroom of Luton Airport, but admittedly, I tried not to think about it. When 39 deceased Vietnamese nationals were found in the back of a truck in Essex in 2019, the UK government and immigration officials offered the rote thoughts-and-prayers along with a promise to bring human traffickers and modern slavers to justice, ignoring the systems that lead people to enter the UK through these channels in the first place.

Emily Kenway’s The Truth About Modern Slavery tries to make sense of how the UK has arrived at this troubling relationship with modern slavery, and how the UK’s policies attempting to fight it are, in all likelihood, making the situation worse. Modern slavery in the UK worringly intersects with the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies that work to eliminate legal and safe paths to emigration, especially for those from the Global South. Most victims of human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK have not been kidnapped or sold, as is often believed, but rather are working off migration debts, debts held by family members back home, or simply migrated with the promise of a job that turned out to be abusive or unsafe. Work visas are almost always tied directly to a specific company or employer; if a visa holder quits or gets fired, they have to leave the country. And if your employer knows this, it becomes all too easy a sword to hold over your neck.

And the UK government’s efforts to fight human trafficking conflicts directly with immigration enforcement: if, say, a young woman working in a nail salon walks into a police station to report her boss for abusing her and witholding her wages until she pays off her passage to the UK, the police will be able to build a case against her employer and others complicit in her trafficking, but when it comes to the victim, there is no available protection–the police have no choice but to turn over her details to the Home Office for “recommendation for removal” (read: deportation). With no protection for victims to come forward, this creates a culture of abuse and fear with traffickers and slavers having complete and total control. Domestic worker visas are regularly issued to foreign nationals coming to work in stately homes across the UK; when your workplace is also your residence, abuse is practically encouraged.

And still the Home Office loves to campaign on their platform of bringing modern slavers to justice–they are doubling down now with scrutiny over the department’s expenses in the news. But Kenway proves that, when they continue to prop up the hostile environment, they continue to invite abuse and trafficking.

Kenway is a skilled writer and researcher, with a deep understanding of the history of slavery abolition and the troublesome history of the movement in the UK. Britain often likes to brag about its history of abolishing slavery, while ignoring the fact that they helped to create the institution in the first place. The historic abolition movement had less to do with compassion and more to do with optics. And as Kenway proves, things haven’t changed enough.

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