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Women's Experiences Completely Missing in Modern Day Slavery Documentary by BBC

17/03/2016 22:12 GMT | Updated 17/03/2017 09:12 GMT

I am absolutely shocked, sad and disappointed. BBC Two broadcasted the documentary Britain's Secret Slavery Business about modern day slavery in the UK on March 11, 2016. It depicted several instances where slavery is currently occurring and shared the personal stories of some male survivors; while it completely failed to incorporate the voice of female survivors and their experiences. The organisation Modern Slavery estimated that in 2013, two thirds of the potential 10,000 - 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK were women. Free the Slaves' figures show that women and girls make out 55% of slavery victims globally. To exclude women's experiences in a documentary set out to generally discuss modern day slavery is problematic to say the least.

The documentary specifically highlights the exploitation of labour in factories, fishing trawlers, car washes in London, and farms. Some brave male individuals shared their horrific experiences with Darragh MacIntyre; stories which are incredibly important to share with the general public. MacIntyre made an effort stating the backgrounds of all the men interviewed. There was a Hungarian factory worker, an English autistic man, Polish car washers, and an Indonesian fisherman. Yet, the analysis did not go any further than that. I then ask myself, how can you on behalf of a national network discuss modern day slavery and not even touch upon the experiences of women? How can you reject any intersectionality analysis as to how everyone's gender, nationality, disability, class, caste, race, religion, physical and mental health, sexuality affects and amplifies your experience of modern slavery?

Gender analysis

About half way in, MacIntyre states this is a story we have all heard before; the story of men being exploited. This rhetoric was reiterated by Lucy Mangan who wrote "Who's up for an hour-long pitiless examination of man's apparently inexhaustible capacity for inhumanity to man?" (emphasis added). The documentary made no examination of situations particular to women in the UK.

Yet stories of girls held captive, raped and forced to serve as maids; female nannies treated like prisoners; women being trafficked and forced into prostitution; women held captive for three decades in London; are all over the internet. Yarl's Wood detention centre's population mainly consists of female detainees, and recently it was found out that private firms have saved millions by paying Yarl's Wood detainees £1 an hour to cook and clean for them. Globally, women make up approximately 74% (around 8.5 million) of all migrant domestic workers and 80% of national domestic workers (ILO, 2015, page 2). The Women's Resource Centre (WRC) in its 2013 shadow report to CEDAW argued:

"Migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and abuses of their human rights...This results from migrant's socio-economic conditions, lack of information about their rights and entitlement to protection in the UK, their personal family and emotional circumstances, attitudes towards the police, the low availability of personal and professional networks, but, most of all, from their immigration legal status." (para 9.38)

For full understanding of modern day slavery of migrant domestic workers I highly recommend the comic strip Almaz's story, by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock. Domestic workers held in slavery often see several of their rights being infringed simultaneously (WRC, para 6.7). In addition, the story of Abike by Positivenegatives is the perfect supplement to the documentary. Because, what MacIntyre fails to even mention, this brilliant comic strip explains in just a few pictures. It illustrates the various dynamics and underlying factors leading to situations of servitude and shines some light on women in sexual exploitation servitude in the UK.

According to the BBC, in 2012 two of the most prevalent instances of modern day slavery were sexual exploitation (accounting for 35% of the potential victims in 2012), followed by labour exploitation (23%). UK's Modern Slavery Act 2015, entered into force on 29 October 2015, sets out to tackle the issue of slavery. It has created two new civil orders to prevent modern slavery; it established an Anti-Slavery Commissioner; and made some provisions for the protection of victims. The organisation Anti-Slavery argues that the Act fails to guarantee minimum standards of protection of victim's rights. They also criticize that migrant domestic workers are required to prove they have been trafficked before they can leave their abusive employers for a new employer. For many, this requirement can be impossible to fulfil. WRC argues that when a domestic worker has no right to change employer, trafficking increases (2013, para 6.34).

What effect does this have?

Nowhere in its description does the BBC state that this is a documentary merely reflecting men's experiences. That leads me to ask the following questions: Are women's experiences niched? Can we really accept that women's experiences are treated as niched? Would we have to make an entirely separate documentary discussing modern day slavery as experienced by women? Would a documentary focusing on women's experiences be seen by a smaller audience? Would that documentary then have to reference women's experiences in the title or description? Britain's Secret Slavery Business surely did not state in its title that it set out to only analyse the experiences of men...

Another problematic dimension of the documentary can be seen when asked why women's experiences were excluded. Women usually work in unregulated informal sectors (WRC, para 9.38). Did MacIntyre purposely disregard the lived experiences of women and girls as their work did not fit the category of "public work"; seen as domestic work takes place in the home and not in the general public? If so, he then reinforces the stereotypical and essentialist assumption about women's roles in the public/private as discussed by Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin. Meaning, their unrecognized labour performed in the private is of less value than the work done by men in the public.

The documentary strongly suggests that it is up for the consumer to do the analysis. If there is a team of five washing your car for 30 minutes and all you pay them are £3, then you should be able to tell that something is wrong. It is true though, consumers do need to be wary, but with such a strong and important message it is unacceptable to neglect women as it proposes that women are of lesser value than men. Even if MacIntyre was not able to set up any interviews with women, their stories still could and needed to have been told.

MacIntyre really does this incredibly important topic some great injustice by neglecting women in his analysis, and I would even go so far as to say it renders the documentary to bad journalism.