• What drew you to studying Modern Slavery?

During my Masters, which encompassed international human rights, modern slavery and new security challenges, it foregrounded how intertwined a tapestry of complex and global factors propagate the conditions that provide fertile ground for exploitation. The phenomenon of modern slavery reveals that it is not only enduring but that it’s reshaping and reforming in response to factors including consumption demands, business behaviour, political ideologies and legislative landscapes.

  • How did you become interested in that field?

Over the past decade, the focus on modern slavery has intensified revealing new insights. Although I knew about ‘traditional slavery’ (i.e., transatlantic slavery trade) I was unaware that contemporary slavery existed, apart from occasionally hearing the term in the media.

Delving deeper into it revealed the types, conditions and underpinning factors that make it prevalent on every continent today, including in developed nations. Living in the UK, I started to recognise signs everywhere….car washes, nail bars and farming, to name just a few. I was curious to understand why others (there’s a wide-range of actors involved including consumers, businesses and government) were able to rationalise consumption needs above the human rights and suffering of others and how structural and institutional factors influence it.  

  • What does the modern slavery landscape look like in the U.K.?

Research is unveiling how modern slavery is happening in the UK, identifying high risk sectors (such as construction, agriculture, cannabis farms and food production) and how victims that are trafficked into the UK are made more vulnerable by having an unstable immigration status. The latest government report shows that a third of people identified as victims were British, followed by Albanians and then Vietnamese. 

The UK Government was considered a global leader when the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) was enacted in 2015, however there has been a shift in government ideology recently which has seen the introduction of a new Nationality and Borders Bill. This has impacted non-British nationals identified as a victim as well as changes to the support under provisions of the MSA. Both the policy changes and political rhetoric accompanying these are affecting the identification and support of victims, severely restricting support and recovery pathways and is likely to result in less perpetrators being prosecuted. What’s more, the political landscape is continuing to shift, with indications that there are more policy changes to the MSA coming in the near future.     

  • What did you do before undertaking a PhD?

After finishing college I spent a few years on temporary assignments that helped broaden my experience — I consider these as my halcyon days, experiencing and learning so much but without any expectation! I then started my career working in the finance services sector for the next 20 years, where after qualifying as a project manager, it enabled me to work across various business divisions, bolstering my experience and learning. I have never considered myself ‘academic’ however the company philosophy about development was strongly embedded, and looking back I am immensely grateful as it led to so many exciting experiences that would eventually (and ironically) lead me to move onto different things.    

After leaving my old profession, I dedicated 4 years to develop a new career path, undertaking a BA in Public Services and MSC in Global Governance. During this time, I ran my own consultancy business as a project manager and volunteered for a wide-range of organisations including an inequality group, Welsh Government project and modern slavery support organisation.  

More recently I worked in the National Health System (NHS) as a programme manager where I designed blueprints for a new nationwide Graduate Programme and Internship Programme. Researching and launching these during a global pandemic was an interesting experience. One positive was as a result of having to be more agile allowed components to be delivered through digital capabilities, enabling greater accessibility for candidates and more streamlined processes for the NHS.

My role is to research the current policy changes and the impact on survivors of UK modern slavery. I am loving this collaboration with Maya (After Exploitation) and Amy (photojournalist, National Geographic Explorer and author of The Dark Figure) as we all bring different strengths and perspectives to the partnership. We have completed the interviews with trauma-informed advocates, the research is complete and we are now in the process of developing the media artefacts — watch this space!

  • Before the collaboration grant, had you ever worked with journalists before?

Yes, I worked closely with journalists during a UK-wide competition for business startups, fostering relationships with a UK national news corporation and regional media organisations. It was a brilliant learning experience, working with an internal Public Relations team and external journalists to shape the narrative and promote the start-up businesses from each region and the national winner. 

  • Will you be doing other research for the GRC? 

I hope so!

You can find out more about Emma Barnes-Lewis here.