UCL Faculty of Laws


On slaves, persons and things: the trouble with ‘modern slavery’

21 January 2016, 6:00 pm–7:00 pm


Event Information

Open to



Current Legal Problems 2016-17


UCL Pavilion (Main Quad), Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

Speaker: Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson (University of Bristol)
Chair: Dr Prabha Kotiswaran (King’s College London)
Admission: Free
Accreditation: This event is accredited with 1 CPD hour with the SRA and BSB
Series: Current Legal Problems 2015-16

About the lecture

A new brand of anti-slavery activism has emerged since the millennium that urges governments to act against what they dub ‘modern slavery’.

Governments, including our own, have been responsive to their calls, introducing new legislation and other measures to address the problem.

But in a world where chattel slavery has been outlawed everywhere, what is ‘modern slavery’ and how are we to identify ‘slaves’?

‘Modern slavery’ is, according to the new abolitionists, a de facto rather than de jure condition, but one that nonetheless continues to be defined by its reduction of human beings to objects of property.

‘To determine, in law, a case of slavery one must look for possession’, and in essence, possession ‘supposes control over a person by another such as a person might control a thing‘ (click here to read more on Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery).

This lecture questions that definition, observing that historically, New World chattel slaves were not simply reduced to ‘things’ either in law or in practice.

As a number of scholars have shown, slaves had a bifurcated existence as both persons (when they committed crimes, for example) and things (when they were brought, sold, bequeathed, as property, for instance).

Attention to this literature suggests that slaveholders’ historical power to control slaves as things was, in fact, grounded in the law’s creation of slaves as particular kinds of persons – a kind legible in criminal but not in civil law.

The lecture then asks whether the law today also creates persons of a kind that can be controlled as things.

It argues that certain categories of flesh and blood human being continue to be simultaneously acknowledged as persons and refused personhood, and that their legal disabilities connect to their vulnerability to control by other persons.

The new abolitionists are barking up the wrong tree, it concludes. And the governments that proudly proclaim their revulsion for so-called ‘modern slavers’ are not so interested in extending equal socially recognised personhood to every human being who stands on their territories.

In fact, just as it required states to sustain the system of transatlantic slavery, so states are authors of the legal disabilities in which it echoes are actually to be found.

About the speaker

Julia O’Connell Davidson is Professor of Social Research at the University of Bristol.

She has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life, which she has explored through studies of employment relations in the privatised utilities, as well as through research on prostitution and sex tourism.

Since 2001, she has been involved in research on various aspects of ‘human trafficking’, as well as on child migration and ‘trafficking’.

She currently holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for a project on ‘modern slavery’, and is author of Modern Slavery: the Margins of Freedom, Palgrave Macmillan 2015.

About Current Legal Problems

The Current Legal Problems annual lecture series was established over sixty years ago. The lectures are public, delivered on a weekly basis and chaired by members of the judiciary.

The Current Legal Problems (CLP) annual volume is published on behalf of UCL Laws by Oxford University Press, and features scholarly articles that offer a critical analysis of important current legal issues.

It covers all areas of legal scholarship and features a wide range of methodological approaches to law. With its emphasis on contemporary developments, CLP is a major point of reference for legal scholarship.

Find out more about CLP on the Oxford University Press website