"Negating Humanity": Modern Slavery in its Historical Context and its Implications for Policy

Primary Investigator: Kristofer Allerfeldt (University of Exeter)

It is a frightening illustration of our times that it costs on the average price an estimated $100 to buy a person. In the US in 1860, a slave cost $1,000 - some $20,000 today. By almost any indicator it would appear that slavery is thriving today, and not simply in developing nations. The issue is certainly exciting more attention. After nearly a century since the British Empire banned slavery, and for almost a century since the League of Nations re-iterated that ban, international bodies have attempted to define and outlaw slavery. Yet it persists. Over the last five years both Britain and the US have passed legislation and introduced far more stringent policing.

However, some would argue that its persistence is in some measure a question of definition. Slavery has never been simple to define, but what is certain is that "Modern Slavery" is not the old -fashioned "chattel" slavery exemplified in the ancient world or the New World. Far from it. The UK's 2015 Modern Slavery Act includes within its remit prohibitions on organ and embryo harvesting; forced marriage and debt bondage. Others see it as a question of enforcement, intrinsically linking slavery with globalisation and insufficiently restrained capitalism. They would argue that at their most extreme these forces encourage and excuse many forms of slavery, by essentially normalising them. This study aims to examine both of these problems. The research of the Principle Investigator addresses issues of definition by examining the forces that drove, the effects of, and the implications of, what was arguably the first "Modern Slavery" legislation in the US: the 1910 White Slave, or Mann Act. On the surface it expanded US slavery beyond its usual racially proscribed boundaries, and seemed to take the idealism within the Thirteenth Amendment to new levels. Even so it has been considered notoriously unsuccessful in checking the enslavement of the young girls it sought to free, misogynistic and - ironically - inherently racist. Nevertheless, it remained the main source of legislation in the field until the 21st century. Co-Investigator's work looks at the implications of the UK's 2015 Modern Slavery Act. This legislation criminalises a range of dehumanising, degrading and cruel practices under the remit of what it terms "slavery". It is this breadth of conceptualisation that has been seen as its weakness and it is that which this study seeks to examine. The project will establish how the Act has been enforced - what crimes it has focused on, as well as where its emphasis is taking the debate. While these two studies compliment each other, the project has other objectives as well. The Project Partner in this bid shows its more practical stress. Paul Broadbent is the CEO of the Gangmasters Licensing Agency. His post was created in the wake of the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster and he is charged with regulating and investigating the exploitation of workers in the food industry. Its remit is to be expanded to industry in general. As such he is centrally involved with the themes of this project - policy definition, public perception and efficacy of modern slavery legislation. Funding will pay for two workshops and the establishment of a long-term network of journalists, leading policy makers, law enforcers and scholars who will collaborate through this project, as well as the research of the investigators. Themed on a  definition and public perception, these workshops will discuss and address such elements as the enslavement of the homeless in present-day London and the use of AI in tracking labour supply chains in the US. Aiming to remain active after this project, members will use other networks to amplify their message, improve its connections and as a platform for conferences, web presence and publishing opportunities. The project aims to produce an edited volume with CUP, two peer-reviewed articles and a panel for the Historians Against Slavery's first conference in October 2017.


The project will:

Bring together academics from both the social sciences and humanities working in the area of modern slavery to integrate their findings and share insights, methodology and expertise focusing on research around the 1910 Mann Act in the US and the 2015 Modern Slavery Act in the UK

Bring together academics and journalists, victims, law enforcers and policy makers from both the US and the UK to investigate problems, share knowledge and discuss future collaboration in two themed workshops

  • Investigate current policy in US and UK in terms of their relative efficacy, scope and remit.
  • Layout a framework that can examine the technological, legal, ethical and practical constraints, developments and possibilities that challenge policy researchers and enforcers, both historically and in the present day in the field of modern slavery.
  • Disseminate the findings of the investigators and workshops in a CUP edited volume, academic articles, in a conference panel and online.
  • Create, sustain and utilise a network of partners that can continue to collaborate on other research beyond the remit of this project.