The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 40.3 million enslaved people around the world today. That's more than at any other time in history. In the wealthiest nations and the poorest, modern slavery – an umbrella term encompassing human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, sex trafficking and forced marriage – is thriving in the shadows. Fuelled by global economic demands for cheap goods and services, and assisted by an increasingly interconnected world, it is among the fastest-growing and most profitable criminal industries today. But the world is waking up and taking action. With the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals calling for an end to slavery by 2030, and governments and NGOs mobilising to develop antislavery interventions, a world without slavery is within reach. And experts at Nottingham are providing the freedom blueprint.
Home to the world's leading modern slavery scholars, the Rights Lab, one of the University's Beacons of Excellence, is the world's first large-scale research platform for ending slavery. Through a unique transdisciplinary approach, the Lab leverages its expertise across political science, law, history, geospatial science, and mental health, among other disciplines, to mix methods, data, tools and techniques into the best combination to solve real-world problems.
"Ending slavery is an ambitious goal. But in the Rights Lab, we believe it is achievable," says Professor Zoe Trodd, Director of the Rights Lab. "There is a global commitment to end slavery, but we need long-term robust, evidence-based strategies for abolition. Our team is bringing a much-needed research rigour to a global community that has awoken to the historic possibility of ending slavery in our lifetime."
At the heart of the Rights Lab agenda is the search for answers to the fundamental question: why does slavery still exist? Key to understanding why the practice persists today are the perspectives of slavery survivors themselves. It may seem like an obvious strategy, yet the Rights Lab's commitment to bring survivors' voices to the forefront of the antislavery movement is a rare endeavour in this space. While slave narratives have long been a valuable tool in abolitionism, policy communities have failed to engage former slaves in the formation of antislavery programmes and frameworks. It's for this reason that the Rights Lab has supported the launch and development of a pioneering new organisation that is making antislavery a survivor-led movement for the first time.
The University of Nottingham will play a key role in this watershed moment when the world finally rejects the great lie of history: that labour must not be forced and that people are not for sale
The Survivor Alliance, currently incubated within the Lab, unites and empowers survivors of modern slavery around the world and brings the ideas of survivors into policy and research. "Every successful social movement has required the voices of those whose lives are deeply affected by injustice," says Professor Trodd. "The Alliance provides a key solution that is currently missing from the contemporary antislavery movement: a survivor-driven institution that moves survivors from being occasional spokespeople to strategic thinkers and movement leaders."
The Alliance is led by Minh Dang, Rights Lab PhD student and leading antislavery campaigner. A survivor of slavery, Minh is at the forefront of efforts to integrate slavery survivors as equal members of the antislavery movement. "It is time for the antislavery movement to focus on deepening opportunities for survivors that are not centred around sharing their trauma narrative," she argues in a powerful contribution to the 2018 Global Slavery Index report. "Survivors understand the benefit of sharing some aspects of our story to raise awareness: however, our experience in slavery is not the only, nor the primary topic we want to discuss. We want to talk about policy change. We want to design social service programs and lead our own organisations. We want to build grassroots solutions and to sustain ourselves. As some of the best interpreters of modern slavery in the broadest sense, survivors' insights are wasted when they are restricted to telling personal stories."
Fusing academic expertise and cutting-edge research with the insight and knowledge of slavery survivors, the Rights Lab has quickly become the go-to academic partner for national and international policymakers seeking evidence-based antislavery strategies. In just the past year, the Lab has produced multiple joint reports with the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner as the sole university to repeatedly co-deliver research; served as the only academic presence on the Prime Minister's Modern Slavery Task Force; worked with policymakers on the new Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill; addressed delegates at the United Nations; provided a major contribution to the 2018 Global Slavery Index assessment of global government efforts to tackle slavery; and joined with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery to produce a major new report. And this is just the start. The goal is liberated slaves and the Rights Lab is creating the roadmap to freedom: a global plan to achieve a slavery-free world by 2030, originated right here at Nottingham.
"It is clearer than ever that slavery teeters on the edge of extinction," says Professor Trodd. "By delivering a new agenda designed around cutting-edge methods and the agency of survivors, and by scaling up breakthroughs to become global research-led strategies, we can push it over the edge. I am proud that the University of Nottingham will play a key role in this watershed moment – when the world finally rejects the great lie of history, that some people are sub-human and embraces the great antislavery truth: that labour must not be forced and that people are not for sale."
Words: Faye Haslam (History, 2012), Connect Staff Writer
Nottingham graduate, writer and speaker. Curious creative inspired by film, music, history, knowledge and big ideas. A traveller at heart, always planning the next big adventure.