An Abolitionist Industrial Complex: Patterns of anti-trafficking/anti-slavery policy and practice in the 21st century

Dec 15, 2021 | Anti-trafficking/anti-slavery, Projects, Transformations (Issue 4)

By Siobhán McGrath

Dr Siobhán McGrath and Dr Alison Jobe (2018/19)

Project Background:

I first invited Alison Jobe to a seminar I organised (funded by an International Engagement Grant) on “Historicising Anti-Slavery; Decolonising Anti-Trafficking?” featuring Prof Kamala Kempadoo and Prof David Lambert. We discussed our shared interests in contemporary abolitionism – by which we mean efforts to combat ‘slavery’ and human trafficking – and whether we might have the opportunity to work together at some point. This opportunity materialised when we successfully applied for our IAS project in  2018-19 for our project titled: ‘An Abolitionist Industrial Complex: Patterns of anti-trafficking / anti-slavery policy and practice in the 21st century.’

Contemporary abolitionism appears to be an ever-expanding (and changing) cause, involving a diverse set of actors – yet there has been little assessment of what contemporary abolitionism has accomplished. Well-established critiques from a range of academic disciplines suggest that dominant approaches have frequently failed to obtain measurable improvements – or even resulted in harms. Our long-term aim for the project, therefore, was to consider how the relations amongst the different actors and approaches involved in contemporary abilitionism combine to set the dominant public policy agenda (through flows of funds, circulation of narratives, institutional ties, individual relationships, etc.). The IAS project enabled us to develop methodologies for exploring how anti-trafficking interventions are shaped by key actors, networks, discourses, funding streams, and agendas along with identifying which actors and agendas have been excluded or marginalized. Our plan for the project was to host Dr. Elena Shih from Brown University in the USA and Prof. Joel Quirk from University of the Witwatersand in South Africa as IAS Fellows, so that we might reflect together on the methodological challenges and possibilities for examining the field of contemporary abolitionism. However, the happy news that both were expectant parents meant that neither was able to take up the fellowship as planned.

Activities During the Project

While our plans changed, we were still able to make productive use of the time and resources granted to us for the project. Prior to the project term, we organised a closed interdisciplinary roundtable in London on ‘future directions in research on anti-trafficking and anti-slavery.’ Participants included myself, Dr Jobe, Prof Joel Quirk, Mike Dottridge (human rights consultant and former head of Anti-Slavery International); Prof Nick Mai (Kingston); Dr Prabha Kotiswaran (Kings); Prof Louise Waite (Leeds); and Ayushman Bhagat (Durham). During the project term, we hosted Prof Genevieve LeBaron for a lecture (co-sponsored by the Global Policy Institute) on research she led to document forced labour in agricultural work — in tea production in India and cocoa production in Ghana. We held an interdisciplinary seminar on ‘methodological ambivalence’ (supported by NINEDTP) with contributions from: Dr Sam Hillyard (Institute of Advanced Study, Durham); Dr Gwyneth Lonergan (Sociological Studies, Sheffield); James Treadwell (Criminology, Staffordshire); Dr Lauren Martin, (Geography, Durham); Prof Nick Mai (Sociology and Migration Studies, Kingston, presenting remotely); Prof Nick Crossley (Sociology and Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis, Manchester); Dr Niall Cunningham (Geography, Durham); Ayushman Bhagat (Geography, Durham); and Dr. Clare Llewellyn (Neuropolitics Research Lab, Edinburgh). We participated in a workshop on Digital Methods, undertook training in Analysis of Social Media, and (together with Joel Quirk and Mike Dottridge) participated in a bespoke training on Social Network Analysis. Finally, we hosted a visit by Prof Quirk in which he gave an IAS lecture on the implications of defining forced marriage as a form of ‘slavery.’

Image taken by Dr Siobhán McGrath


The unexpected way in which our project unfolded led us to postpone any large grant application on examining the field of contemporary abolitionism. But the project allowed us to develop ideas and foster relationships which have nonetheless been important to our work since. Each of us has applied for a small-scale grant since the end of the project (unfortunately both unsuccessful). We have also each supervised a Laidlaw Fellow; the Fellow I worked with has used data from the Foundation Directory Online to produce a report on patterns of funding for contemporary abolitionism (  Alison Jobe supervised Will Weston, a Laidlaw fellow and Anthropology student, who produced an analysis of print media use of the terms ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ between 2000 and 2019 (The Stories of Human Trafficking | Laidlaw Scholars Network).

I have also recently applied for a large grant to the ESRC’s Transforming Working Lives Research Call in 2021. It responds to the fact that long-standing concerns over degrading and precarious work in UK horticulture – including poor housing conditions, underpayment and non-payment of wages, health and safety problems, verbal and physical abuse, and cases of ‘slavery’ – have intensified in recent years. This project would therefore examine whether and how the grassroots policy model of Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR), developed to address markedly similar conditions of work in US horticulture, could be adapted to improve working conditions in UK horticulture. The aim of the proposed project is to determine whether and how WSR can be effectively adapted to UK horticulture as a means to facilitate worker voice and improve conditions of work. In so doing, the project would further examine the scope for ‘counter-mobilities’ through grassroots policy mobilisation.

Finally, an article I have co-authored with Dr. Fabiola Mieres has been recently accepted by the journal Development and Change. The article conceptualizes contemporary abolitionism as a commodifying cause characterized by multiple processes of marketization, thus demonstrating how concerns about the unethical commodification of labour form the basis of a variety of marketization projects and processes. This new piece is very much a product of the thinking and discussions which took place during the IAS project. Dr Alison Jobe has also published a related publication titled: Telling the Right Story at the Right Time: Women Seeking Asylum with Stories of Trafficking into the Sex Industry – Alison Jobe, 2020 (


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join the Transformations mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from the IAS.

Related posts