In recent years there has been a great increase in public, political and media attention focused on "modern slavery." Widely denounced as a contemporary evil that affects all societies, it is understood that "modern slavery,quot; is a situation in which a person is exploited, forced to work and unable to move away from their circumstances. It is generally understood as analogous to terms such as "trafficking in persons,quot; or "forced labor,quot; and essentially as "not free,quot;.
In the last three decades, the number of institutions involved in the fight against this lack of freedom has multiplied, from a handful in the early 1990s to many hundreds today. In addition, governments around the world have passed national legislation against slavery, collectively committing to eradicate slavery as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Governments, NGOs and international agencies have spent millions of dollars annually on policies against slavery, while the media have provided continuous, often sensationalist coverage on the subject.
Despite this, there is great criticism of both the concept of modern slavery and the way in which policy makers tend to address it. Scholars have pointed out that, in practice, many people find themselves in circumstances that could conform to the definition of modern slavery, but that are not identified as "modern slaves."
Among people who are "unable to flee," there are women in abusive relationships who cannot leave due to poverty and patriarchy, migrants trapped in European detention centers and migrant workers in the United States who, due to the threat of deportation , remain effectively trapped in exploitative employment.
So who decides who is a "modern slave,quot;?
The problem with the concept of modern slavery
"Modern slavery," as a concept, is a recent Euro-American invention. It emerged in the 1990s among neo-abolitionist NGOs that found it as an effective and attractive tool to spread their message and raise funds. A key figure in this story is Kevin Bales, who established the widely criticized Global Slavery Index. His prolific writing and defense have helped establish the idea of modern slavery in the public consciousness.
The dominant thinking about modern slavery tends to selectively apply a sentimental lens of concern along lines that are thoughtlessly white, liberal and middle class. It builds certain non-Western phenomena as problematic (such as survival work done by poor children in much of the Global South) while excluding from worry Western phenomena (such as migrant detention centers) that may be the same or even more problematic
Such thinking remains trapped in a liberal liberal paradigm, by which "freedom,quot; is understood as the absence of individual (mainly physical) coercion. That is, in this liberal vision of the Western world, I am free to the extent that no one forces me to do something against my will and I am not free to the extent that the opposite applies.
However, this idea has important flaws, the most serious is that it does not take into account the structural coercion inherent in life in a market society, which dictates that we should all work to live or go hungry, unless we are lucky enough to Be independent rich.
And this is not a simple theoretical theme; It has important political implications. By reducing the circle of concern only to certain acts of individualized coercion, and by trying to prevent phenomena that are offensive only from the perspective of some points of view and not others, modern slavery theorists and policy makers commit a series of errors.
First, they exclude phenomena that may be equally problematic in their analysis. Second, they problematize phenomena (and in particular livelihood strategies) that may not be problematic for people living in them. And thirdly, they normalize the underlying causal conditions of all problematic labor relations, focusing on the individual perpetrators of the "bad egg,quot; and diverting attention from the central structures that facilitate exploitation.
This, in turn, legitimizes simplistic political interventions, such as raid and rescue programs, which have been shown to actively harm people.
During my field research through West africa and in southern Europe, I interviewed many poor workers labeled as modern slaves or victims of trafficking by the authorities who tried to rescue them by force. However, in most cases, these workers understood that they had given their consent to their work because doing so represented the best of their very limited options.
Therefore, the rescue was not desired and even abusive. Worse, it diverted the effort and funds from stronger initiatives that promote equality for socio-economic redistribution. What I found has been repeated by researchers in places as diverse as Ghana and India.
Freedom as the power to say no
So what alternatives do we have? Many critics have argued in favor of abandoning the concept of modern slavery altogether and, instead, articulate a more coherent and structurally tuned theory of freedom that can elucidate the social limitations imposed on the experience of (some) people.
One of those theories is the idea of "freedom as the power to say no," which argues that people need effective capacity, as well as the abstract right to reject any set of unpleasant circumstances, without which they cannot be considered free. In this understanding, a mother who sells sex to survive and is free to stop when she wants to, but cannot because this is the only chance of winning she has, could be considered not free to the extent that she lacks the effective power to secure it. to her and to her. the livelihood of the family outside this particular and exploitative labor relationship.
And, of course, the fact that this is the only way you have access to the money you need is necessarily determined by the social and legal rules in force in your society that decide who gets what.
This re-theorization has radical implications. It means that coercion must be seen as a structural phenomenon and not merely individual and that being vulnerable to it implies inhabiting a position within the social order that structurally limits one's effective power to say no. In this sense, any coherent political response to the problems of lack of freedom in society should focus on the expansion of this effective power for all people, not only for those labeled as modern slaves.
A policy suggestion to expand people's freedom to say no, particularly in relation to labor exploitation, is universal basic income (UBI). UBI is defined as a guaranteed, regular, unconditional and universal cash payment to all members of a political community. Critical thinkers have been advocating a version of it since at least the 18th century.
Its purpose is simple: to allow those who live in a market society to enjoy the power of saying no to undesirable work by ensuring that they always have a minimum amount to live, no matter what.
Although it seems simple, the implications of this potential policy are enormous. If everyone always had a small amount to survive, then no one would have to do a bad job to avoid homelessness or hunger. This would greatly reduce the structural coercion incorporated into capitalist society and allow people to say "no thanks,quot; whenever they wish.
However, it would also give them the power to say "yes," since people would still be free to choose hard work; it is just that wages for doing so would probably increase considerably, since the supply of workers for it would decrease. In addition, UBI would improve people's freedom to choose care work, education or community service as alternatives to work. And it would support greater gender equality, as fewer and fewer women would be forced to remain in unpleasant or abusive marriages for fear of homelessness.
Vitally, the explosion of recent UBI pilots has moved this conversation from the realm of theory to that of facts. From Kenya to Canada and India, UBI initiatives have overwhelmingly demonstrated that this policy improves people's freedom, improves gender equality and promotes human well-being. In India, the trial conducted by the Association of Autonomous Women even found a significant reduction in bonded labor among recipients, as debt declined, assets increased and more and more people were able to work on their own instead of lenders.
So, if modern slavery activists and policy makers really want everyone to be free, then, today, on International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, let's ask, "Why not ask for universal basic income? , the power to say no, for all of us? "
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.