Seminar on anti-slavery activism

On Wednesday 7 March 2018, Prof Joel Quirk of Wits University presented a seminar at JIAS entitled ‘The marketplace of anti-slavery activism: towards decent work?’

Prof Quirk is one of eleven 2018 JIAS Writing Fellows. This was the second in a weekly seminar series presented by the Fellows, selected scholars and writers from several continents and five countries who are currently in residence at JIAS.



The last three decades have been marked by increasing awareness and investment regarding the global challenges associated with severe labour exploitation and related forms of human bondage. This challenge has been classified and analysed using a variety of overlapping schemes, with some of the most popular starting points being human trafficking and modern slavery.

While there is no question that humanitarian impulses driving these activities can be important and laudable, there is also now a significant body of work that raises challenging questions regarding how much of this activity has translated into effective and appropriate responses.

Most important for the purposes of this seminar is the foundational division between ‘extreme’ and ‘lesser’ or ‘everyday’ exploitation and abuse. Within this context, the language of ‘slavery’ tends to do a great deal of analytical and political work, as contemporary analysts and activists seek to harness to the infamy and iconography of slavery and its legal abolition in order to both prioritise and dramatise a wide range of contemporary problems.

One of the most important effects of this division is that it treats ‘modern slavery’ as a singular and exceptional problem, which is tacitly assumed to stand apart from other ‘lesser’ problems and ‘normal’ practices. Targeting exceptional cases is not only very difficult in practical terms, it also tends to create an informal separation between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ cases. Instead of concentrating our energies upon a subcategory within a larger population, it is instead preferable to think in terms of the rights and protections afforded to all migrant workers, sex workers, supply chain workers, and other vulnerable workers.


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