Editorial: From Exceptional Cases to Everyday Abuses: Labour exploitation in the global economy


  • Joel Quirk
  • Caroline Robinson
  • Cameron Thibos




This article introduces a special issue on economic systems and everyday abuses of labour rights. In recent decades, neoliberal policies have transformed both the world economy and the world of work. Hard-won rights and protections have been eroded by deregulation, outsourcing, and subcontracting. New forms of unstable, isolated, and insecure work have emerged. This introduction examines the driving forces behind the increasing prominence of precarious work, the accelerating role of migrant labour within global economic systems, and the political relationship between everyday abuses and forms of severe exploitation which have recently come to be defined as human trafficking and modern slavery. We argue that a singular focus upon individual cases of extreme exploitation is unlikely to be effective, and can also draw attention away from the larger systems, interests, and abuses that are associated with the smooth and regular operations of the global economy. We also suggest that at least some of the energies which have recently been expended debating the contentious category of ‘modern slavery’ could be usefully redirected towards lower profile interventions concerned with worker and migrant rights. There are never going to be simple or straightforward solutions to labour abuses, so it is necessary to take many bumpy paths simultaneously, with small steps forward and some steps backward.


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Author Biographies

Joel Quirk

Joel Quirk is a Professor of Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses upon slavery and abolition, human mobility, social movements, repairing historical wrongs, and the politics and history of Africa.

Caroline Robinson

Caroline Robinson is an independent consultant based in Scotland. She co-founded the UK-based charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) in 2012 and served as its Chief Executive Officer until 2019. She previously led global advocacy for the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, co-founding the Anti-Trafficking Review in 2011. She holds an MA in Development Studies with distinction from the Institute of Development Studies.

Cameron Thibos

Cameron Thibos is co-founder and Managing Editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery on openDemocracy, as well as Research Fellow on the WorkFREE project at the University of Bath. He previously worked as a Research Associate at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He holds a d.phil (PhD) in International Development from the University of Oxford.




How to Cite

Quirk, J., Robinson, C., & Thibos, C. (2020). Editorial: From Exceptional Cases to Everyday Abuses: Labour exploitation in the global economy. Anti-Trafficking Review, (15), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.14197/atr.201220151