Using Existing Know-How to Tackle Modern Slavery

16 August 2018
Research Innovation

Ligia Kiss  | Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Cathy Zimmerman  | Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Regardless of the terms you use—modern slavery, forced labour, human trafficking—these are complex problems to address. In our first column for Delta 8.7, we want to share lessons learned from our past work on gender-based violence and our current research with the UK’s Department For International Development-funded and we want to present a challenge to colleagues working to achieve Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We believe that many of the lessons we learned about taking a public health prevention approach to address complex social problems, such as gender-based violence, can be applied to the challenge of tackling modern slavery.


Book market in Warsaw, Poland. Unsplash/freestock.org

The first lesson is that achieving meaningful gains in the number of people in safer, fairer and more equitable employment requires both preventing people’s entry into exploitative conditions and reducing the prevalence of exploitative conditions. Until recently, investments were targeted primarily at responsive actions such as perpetrator prosecutions and victim assistance. However, the tide seems to be turning towards prevention, with growing numbers of donors seeking answers to the question: What works to prevent modern slavery?

The second lesson is about the need to identify the risk and protective factors related to people’s entry into exploitative work and the determinants that drive exploitative work. Over the past decade, a great deal of excellent qualitative work has been produced describing the many forms of modern slavery around the world. There have also been substantial improvements in prevalence calculations. But how much progress has been made in identifying the “modifiable causes” of modern slavery?

In 2015, with the Freedom Fund, we conducted a thematic literature review and analysis of more than 50 safer migration and anti-trafficking documents to search for evidence on risk and protective factors of exploitation. We found no literature that specifically set out to identify determinants. Among the documents that discussed risks of exploitation, most only identified broad influences over which individuals had little control, such as gender and age. Others focused on large-scale factors that require massive policy shifts, such as under-regulated, low-skill labour sectors or irregular migration. None attempted to grasp the “full scope of causes ‘that makes a difference’” in the occurrence of modern slavery. This suggests that the search for evidence on determinants should be a pressing element of prevention programming.

By generating evidence on the interactions between risk, protections and outcomes it is possible to develop well-grounded theories of change.

When we embarked on the SWIFT evaluation, we knew that stronger evidence was needed to help guide interventions. In the SWIFT work, we began researching evidence to answer questions such as what risk factors should interventions be targeting, how should they be targeting them among different groups, and in which contexts. By generating evidence on the interactions between risk, protections and outcomes it is possible to develop well-grounded theories of change. And we believe well-grounded theories of change are the essential element of intervention design and evaluation.

As we have done in our upcoming SWIFT Regional Brief, we wonder which of the following fundamental intervention-related questions can we, as practitioners, policymakers and researchers, answer:

  • What characteristics and contexts put people at greater risk of being exploited? What protects them?
  • Which sectors have the highest and lowest risks of exploitation? Why?
  • Which causal or contextual factors are modifiable, in what circumstances and for whom?

But even when we can answer these questions, the challenges faced by low-wage workers in finding and maintaining decent work remain because we are still left to understand the interconnections between the various constraints to decent work. Discovering a single magic bullet to eliminate human trafficking is unlikely. To reduce people’s risks of being trapped in slavery and to promote their safety and health, interventions will have to address the complex and systemic nature of the determinants of labour exploitation.

In our recent paper, Human trafficking and exploitation: A global health concern, for the PLOS MEDICINE collection on Health, Trafficking and Exploitation, we presented a conceptual framework that depicts the multiple phases of labour migration, potential areas of risk and/or protection and described common features of exploitation. We highlighted the risks of harm from abuses associated with exploitive work and employment conditions, from extensive hours and unprotected hazardous tasks to extortionate employment terms, physical confinement, threats and violence. Frameworks such as the one we proposed are intended to help guide thinking about intervention and policy target areas and promote cross-sector collaboration.

So, as we close our first column, we would like to launch a dialogue to challenge Delta 8.7’s community of practitioners, academics and decision-makers to consider theoretical advancements to help us move towards more coherent, integrated programming and policy directions in the field of labour exploitation. In our framework, there are several examples of risks—poor livelihood options, usurious job placement—related to phases of a labour migrant’s journey, including pre-departure, recruitment, workplace and return. We want to challenge the Delta 8.7 community to dig a bit deeper into each intervention area suggested in our initial framework—social protections, recruiters and employer and business practices—and develop more detailed perspectives, hopefully, based on strong evidence. We look forward to reading your responses in the Forum and having a real conversation about these issues on Delta 8.7.

Ligia Kiss is an associate professor of social epidemiology London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Cathy Zimmerman is a professor and founding member of the Gender Violence & Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

This article has been prepared by Ligia Kiss and Cathy Zimmerman as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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