Oxford Brookes Business School

Researching ‘invisible people’ in modern slavery

Friday, 17 May 2019

Invisible people May

In 2018, the number of potential victims of trafficking and modern slavery reported to the authorities in the UK had risen to 7000, an 80% increase in two years (NCA 2019). This increase maybe due to enhanced efforts to raise awareness about modern slavery and encourage individuals to report suspicious cases to the Modern Slavery Helpline.

The discrepancy between this number and much higher number of people estimated to be in situations of slavery in the UK (136.000 according to Global Slavery Index), however, maybe related to the definition of slavery and the related issues of (in)visibility and identification of people caught in webs of exploitation. To conclude the 2019 Oxford Human Rights Festival photo exhibition ‘Invisible People’, Dr Samentha Goethals (OBBS) convened a discussion panel with Dr Tamsin Barber (Oxford Brookes, Social Sciences Department), Dr Kate Clayton-Hathway (Oxford Brookes, Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice) and Fiona Gell (Elmore Community Services, Oxford). This note highlights some key points of a rich discussion regarding the challenges they encountered in researching issues of modern slavery and people who are invisible and often invisibilised in our society.

Complex and hidden issue

Researching modern slavery, the people and organisations involved, the personal journeys and routes used by traffickers, the systems and processes that enable exploitation, or again the services and initiatives developed to care for and support survivors is a complex endeavour. Trafficking and slavery are often facilitated by informal networks that exploit the vulnerability of individuals who have accrued debts, suffer from mental and physical illnesses, are socially isolated and marginalised and seek to improve economically precarious lives. These networks stretch within and beyond the frontiers of a country, exploit the privacy of hotel rooms and the anonymity of corridors of migration. They operate in the remoteness of farms and factories compounds, as well as under the cover of easily set-up shops providing cheap everyday services, such as hand car washes, nail salons and take-aways.

Current initiatives to eliminate modern slavery have recognised the need for multi-stakeholders partnerships and information sharing to debunk the formal and informal networks and practices that enable the trafficking of people into sexual and labour exploitation. This was well-illustrated by the number of stakeholders including public, private and third sector organisations that both Dr Clayton-Hathway and Mrs Gell and their teams have reached out in their respective projects: COMBAT Human Trafficking Project and Researching the extent and nature of Modern Slavery and Trafficking in Oxford City.

Nuanced identities and experience

An important question common to the three projects concerns the definition and perception of modern slavery and exploitation not only under the Modern Slavery Act (MSA 2015), but also by people in organisations working to eliminate slavery, employers and employees, as well as potential victims/survivors themselves.

The Newton Funded project ‘New Labour Migrations Between Vietnam and the UK: Motivations, Journeys and Reflections’ conducted by Dr Barber highlighted the problem of the definition of modern slavery in the MSA and its conflicting intersection with other immigration laws that criminalise undocumented migrants, a common status among individuals in situation of slavery. Furthermore, under the Act’s definition of modern slaves and its emphasis on children, young Vietnamese have become framed as one of the groups highly at risk of exploitation in cannabis farms and nail salons in the UK. This framing appears to lead to the stereotypification of young Vietnamese as victims, especially since they tend to look younger than their age and might be identified as victims of child exploitation. Yet, the findings suggest that this group tends not to recognise themselves as exploited or enslaved, even if the conditions they experience at work maybe akin to severe exploitation. Their experience is far more complex and nuanced; their own agency, reasons and imaginaries for migrating to improve their lives and that of their families, as well as their ability to navigate the routes and networks they use go unnoticed in the victim frame.

While victimisation may serve individuals to seek protection to stay in the UK, it also leads people to hide from authorities to avoid being found undocumented, criminalised and deported back to Vietnam. The research thus highlights problems with the current definition of slavery and the resulting stereotyping of certain groups as victims in ways that push them into invisibility while moderate forms of labour exploitation that can lead to slavery are also rendered invisible and not addressed.

Methodologies: Working with different gatekeepers, being a mediator for partnerships and participating in web-chatrooms

Each of the projects used different approaches to investigate this hidden issue and gain access to gatekeepers and individuals who had experienced exploitation and slavery. To research the motivations, journeys and experiences of young Vietnamese in the UK, Dr Barber and her team held workshops in Vietnam and the UK and reviewed data collected from a previous project that observed and participated in publicly accessible web chatrooms. Young Vietnamese often use chatrooms to share information about immigration to and life and access to work in the UK under the cover of anonymity and the heavy traffic of information.

The COMBAT project worked with NGOs to map the movements and get stories of individuals caught in slavery in the hotel sector and trafficked between Romania, the Nordic region and the UK. Dr Clayton-Hathway described the role of mediator that as a researcher she played between the different organisations that facilitated access and shared their experiences. She also stressed the importance of building strong relationships with and trust in numerous gatekeepers, especially organisations that support potential victims and survivors.

The role of the researcher-mediator also figured prominently in the project conducted by Elmore Community Services. Fiona Gell presented a complex map of public, private and voluntary organisations involved in addressing modern slavery in Oxfordshire. To address modern slavery these organisations are encouraged to work in partnership so as to share and get accurate data. While important in protecting the privacy of individuals, GDPR regulations make the sharing of data between organisations considerably harder, and research to map survivors and suspects more complex and time-consuming. For example, it makes the avoidance of double-counting of victims/survivors more difficult. We know that one of the factors that enables exploiters to get away with their crimes undetected is poor sharing of information between agencies. Protection of individual privacy has to be weighed against this.

There are various practical issues in researching modern slavery, not least the impact it can have on researchers listening to and coming across cases of severe abuses. Gatekeeping and access to survivors is also especially difficult. As modern slavery is increasingly researched while research outcomes and impact seldom seem to benefit the research participants and the organisations that support them, this difficulty might be exacerbated. The final message of the panel therefore emphasised the importance of participation of relevant stakeholders from the outset, particularly where the research aims to inform policy, practice and partnership.