Forrest had plenty of clout with his own Australian government and convinced them to back new global anti-slavery efforts. The same political influence was soon extended to the United Kingdom where, under the influence of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government became interested in talking about ‘modern slavery’ rather than continuing to refer, as the rest of the Europe did, to efforts to ‘combat trafficking in human beings’.
As a former director of an anti-slavery charity, I should have been delighted by these new initiatives. But from the beginning I had doubts. I had seen how anti-trafficking efforts marginalised human rights and had witnessed the appalling impact of successive US administrations on efforts to stop extreme forms of exploitation around the world. I knew what their partisan criticism of other governments, their funding for US-based organisations operating around the world, and their blanket refusal to support organisations that promoted respect for sex workers’ rights could do. If the massive new injection of funds skewed things even further, there was a possibility that it would cause more harm than good.
In practice, the results have been mixed. Forrest has, for example, used his influence in the corporate world to press business leaders to expunge forced labour from their operations and supply chains. In doing so he has further increased the pressure for action that has been building ever since the United Nations adopted its Business and Human Rights Principles in 2011.
Forrest and other anti-slavery donors have also been gaining influence within the International Labour Organization ever since it was agreed that the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals would promote measures to “eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour” (target 8.7). In 2017, Forrest was invited to address a global ILO conference in Argentina on reducing child labour. That same year, the Walk Free Foundation and the ILO published a joint report estimating how many people are in ‘modern slavery’ around the world. In some ways this was a major advance, however the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery also combined estimates of people forced into labour (25 million) with people forced into marriage (15 million) under one label, thereby inventing a new definition for the term ‘modern slavery’ and nearly doubling the total at the same time.
Following the piper to the wrong place
By this point, the organisations under the influence of the main anti-slavery donors control such a large proportion of the resources available that they have an effective monopoly over the field. If it was clear that they knew how best to use their influence, such a monopoly might be in the interests of the people they are dedicated to protecting. But in cases such as India, where they have supported an anti-human trafficking bill – notable mainly by its intention to detain women who have been in prostitution, rather than to respect human rights – it is apparent that they can have a profoundly negative influence. At the same time, by persuading the ILO to use the term ‘modern slavery’ they have managed to infuriate the government of India, a key country to influence on account of the substantial numbers of people subjected to various forms of bondage and forced labour.
On the wider stage, the introduction of the term ‘modern slavery’ has been divisive, breaking a relative consensus around the issue of human trafficking. To many it seemed that Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA were embarking on a new crusade with the help of the ILO, a project that other organisations such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime opposed. The UNODC had had a virtual monopoly of discussions within the UN on human trafficking, and it evidently feared that switching to the terminology of ‘slavery’ could undermine its privileged role. Perhaps many of the failings that followed would have occurred anyway: not least was the lack of coordinated responses by UN organisations to new patterns of abuse, for example the lack of resources made available to pay for the recovery and healing of Yazidi women and girls enslaved in Iraq by Da’esh (‘Islamic State’). But this shift in power and language certainly didn’t help.