‘Why Mobilizing a United Public is needed to end Modern Slavery’ by Joanna Ewart-James – Executive Director, Freedom United

Joanna Ewart James

Ask anyone: “Do you agree with human trafficking?”, “What about forced labor?”, “Is coercing someone into marriage acceptable?”, “Do you want to buy products produced by exploited children?”

Surely, the answer (we hope) is a resounding “no.” 

But while there may be widespread public condemnation of these forms of modern slavery, individuals may not see why they, as just one person, can or must act to make a difference. Indeed, modern slavery is a massive and complex problem, which is precisely why it needs to be broken down into concrete, actionable solutions. 

That’s where Freedom United comes into play.

As a global anti-slavery organization, we believe in people power. We believe the public are major stakeholders in ending modern slavery around the world. We believe that by uniting that public as one voice against modern slavery, we can create power to shift priorities and see genuine action from governments and the private sector. And we already have.

Through using social movement theory to shake up the status quo where modern slavery thrives, we aim to inspire millions around the world to learn about modern slavery for an informed society that acts together. We strategically mobilize our community’s power in coordination and collaboration with 90 anti-slavery organizations around the world. 

Our advocacy campaigns start as petitions, asking the public to sign to show their support for calls on governments and companies to take specific, progressive steps to address modern slavery. In doing so, we encourage and demonstrate international solidarity — people should not just care about human trafficking in their own backyard, or when it only affects their own country. 

Our supporters are a testament to this in practice; a woman from Uganda signs a petition in support of ending domestic slavery in Hong Kong; a man from South Korea signs in support of a bill to end the criminalization of child trafficking victims in the United States; a college student from Saudi Arabia stands up for a stronger Modern Slavery Act in Australia.

Much has been said about the efficacy of online petitions in achieving change, critics lamenting so-called “clicktivism.” But let’s be clear. Petitions are the starting point for a larger public conversation on modern slavery and do represent the public’s appetite for change. 

At the same time, we also call on our supporters to take action offline: to spread the word after they sign a petition, to write directly to a company as a concerned consumer, to attend our partners’ on-the-ground events, to show up when we have public protests and petition deliveries. Freedom United makes use of that powerful voice to strengthen an advocacy message, creating political space and the political will needed for action.       

For example, giving child rights campaigners the ability to go into a meeting with government officials with the clout of 80,000 signatures behind them gives strength and power to their calls for better protection measures, as our partner ECPAT UK found when they were advocating for a stronger Modern Slavery Bill, helping to secure a statutory defense to protect victims from being criminalized for crimes they were forced to commit.

Even in those cases where we do not secure all of the asks in our campaigns, we remain optimistic, regroup, and push forward. And let’s not forget — regardless of what “wins” are achieved — the process of campaigning is an education of what modern slavery around the world looks like enabling them to say “I see the young girl trapped in domestic slavery. I see the migrant worker trafficked onto a fishing vessel. I see the survivor of forced labor. And we’re here, recognizing that this is wrong and standing with you in the fight for justice.” 

As we aim to change public perceptions of modern slavery and encourage solidarity — not pity — with victims and survivors, it is worth noting that advocacy is just one part of the puzzle. This is why Freedom United’s advocacy efforts are intertwined with raising public awareness of what modern slavery does — and does not — look like. 

Too often people conjure up images of women in chains and ropes, violent kidnappings, and smuggling people across borders when they hear the words “human trafficking.” A Google Image search wouldn’t dissuade them otherwise. In fact, it’s worse with its sexualized, disempowered, depressing imagery.

It may seem like a trivial problem, the issue of representation, but it’s not. When the reference point for recognizing human trafficking is not reflective of reality, it means people are blind to potential abuses happening right before their eyes. When the reference point is victims, the response is to save and pity, not to give agency and empower. 

Let’s take the questions from the opening of this article, but reframe them as common scenarios.

“I’m going to put my domestic workers’ passport in a safe just to make sure she doesn’t lose it. All of my friends do it, too.”

“What’s the issue with sending a foreign victim of trafficking back to where they came from?”

“It’s for her protection to get married. Worse might happen to her on the street.”

“Why should we pay inmates for working to upkeep prisons? They broke the law, so they don’t deserve the minimum wage.”

These might not be situations that are quickly recognized as red flags for forced labor or putting someone at risk of re-trafficking. But they should be. Modern slavery needs to be understood in all of its nuance and based on the experiences of survivors if we’re going to address the problem effectively. This is precisely why we started the “My Story, My Dignity” campaign, to provide organizations with guidance on representing the realities of modern slavery accurately and respectfully.

As I have written elsewhere, “Public campaigns that accurately and sensitively capture this reality, that do not contribute to the perpetuation of misinformed stereotypes and misinformation, can thereby advance the cause of the entire anti-trafficking, anti-slavery movement. And I am certain that they not only can, but must, if we are to make progress in this fight.”

While we see our campaigns advocating for strong, comprehensive laws and robust company policies as key to tackling modern slavery, they are not the end of the story.

In those moments, the scenarios above, we need individuals to step up and be the change in their own communities. 

Explain to your friend why keeping their domestic worker’s passport is wrong. 

Point out that deporting trafficking survivors often puts them back into the very same conditions that led to their trafficking. 

Say that prisoners still have rights and that forced labor is not part of their sentence, and certainly not part of their rehabilitation.

Everyone has a part to play in stopping modern slavery and the exploitation that can lead to it. 

Join us as we campaign for change.

freedomunited.org | @freedomunitedhq

What do you think?