According to its preamble, the United Nations Palermo Protocol on Human Trafficking is designed to combat exploitation. The protocol, however, leaves ‘exploitation’ undefined. It instead provides some examples, such as “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”. Exploitation also regularly appears in political speeches. In 2016, the then home secretary for the United Kingdom, Theresa May, declared that “it is only by working together, taking responsibility and fighting criminality that we can stop the misery of exploitation and enable everyone in society to work without fear.” May was a key figure behind the adoption of the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015, which codified and consolidated existing legislation on human trafficking and modern slavery. This legislation was, at least initially, widely celebrated. But it is by no means clear that it actually offers an effective platform against exploitation.
There are many reasons to be sceptical here. First, exploitation tends to be narrowly understood in terms of extreme forms of abuse. Severe exploitation is undoubtedly a problem to be tackled. Yet many policymakers who have endorsed efforts against modern slavery have remained silent on, or even actively supported, legal and regulatory frameworks that lead to widespread instances of injustice at work, such as underpayment of wages or work in unsafe conditions. Modern slavery rhetoric can therefore obscure the moral wrong of exploitation by normalising less severe but no less pressing forms of ill treatment at work.
Second, the current approach to exploitation in modern slavery laws mainly identifies individual wrongdoers, and routinely misses the role of state authorities. This plays into the already well-established idea that there are evil traffickers whom the state seeks to intercept in order to protect potential victims. What is missing here is the role that states play in paving the way for exploitation. I will give two examples to illustrate this, before returning to the definition of exploitation.
Structures of exploitation
In January 2018 a frightened, 18-year-old man from Vietnam went to a police station in London and reported that he had spent five years being trafficked in and out of cannabis houses by criminal gangs across the capital. He explained how he travelled from Vietnam to Europe, where he was put in the back of a lorry to come to the UK and work in cannabis cultivation. The police contacted the Home Office. The man was detained and sent to an immigration centre, Brook House, where people are held prior to deportation.
Now, as a general rule asylum seekers and irregular migrants in the UK are prohibited from working. But they are allowed to work while in detention. According to a report on the conditions in Brook House, there were 116 paid work roles in the centre, including “wing orderlies, barbers, kitchen orderlies and posts in the laundry, the garden, the chaplaincy and the food serveries”. Despite performing this work, those detained could not earn qualifications, certificates, or other forms of recognition for it.