Modern slavery and the margins of freedom: debtors, detainees and children

Nobody is in favour of slavery; all states have a duty to eradicate it. Yet anti-slavery activists estimate there are 27 million modern slaves in the world today and call for their emancipation. Such calls receive support from across the political spectrum. Struggle against modern slavery appears as a straightforward moral imperative. But what precisely is this struggle against? Problems surrounding the definition of modern slavery provide the starting point for this project.

Scholarship shows that historically, slavery always implied constraints on freedom, and not all such constraints were unique to slavery. In the past, there was significant overlap between the experience of slaves and that of many people not regarded as slaves, such as servants, prisoners, wives and children, but a slave was readily identifiable in the sense that s/he was legally defined as such. Today, by contrast, slavery is nowhere a legally recognised status, so how are modern slaves to be distinguished from other groups? Contemporary abolitionists define modern slavery in terms of three key elements (subjection to another’s will; violence; exploitation). And yet these elements can vary both in form and degree and can be configured in different ways, producing continuums of misery and unfreedom, rather than two directly opposed categories of experience (freedom or enslavement). Constituent elements of what is described as modern slavery can be found in social relationships and arrangements that are widespread and socially sanctioned.

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Sketch of Richard Mentor Johnson freeing a man from debtors' prison. Johnson was an advocate of ending the practice of debt imprisonment throughout his political career by Asahel Langworthy (1843).

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The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

I will explore these definitional problems in relation to three groups that stand on the margins of freedom – debtors, detainees and children. Debt figures prominently as a route to enslavement in abolitionist discourse, but debt constrains most of our lives. Techniques used to recover legally sanctioned loans from debtors can be highly coercive. Where is the boundary between free debtors and modern slaves? Immigration detention is also interesting because depriving non-citizens of their liberty is an activity that generates significant profits for many private companies, but detainees’ experience is not a focus of attention for contemporary anti-slavery campaigners. Why not? Meanwhile, children are subject to the will of their adult carers and popularly regarded as belonging to their parents (an idea that is reflected in certain aspects of law). But childhood per se is not imagined as slavery. Under what circumstances are children regarded as slaves and why?

Because the term ‘modern slavery’ is so hard to define, it can be and is applied selectively. The project explores this process of selection and its links to ideas about gender, race, class, age, and nationality, as well as about human rights and freedom. In a world where subjection, coercion and exploitation feature in so many people’s lives, how are the lines drawn between the unconscionable (modern slavery) and the tolerable, inevitable or even justifiable? And what does this tell us about the politics of contemporary abolitionism?

Professor Julia O'Connell Davidson
University of Nottingham

Julia was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in 2012.