Unfree Labour and the Capitalist State: An Open Marxist Analysis of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act

Chris J Pesterfield*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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The Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015, ostensibly to tackle exploitation. Despite being promoted for its ‘world-leading’ qualities, the legislation’s weaknesses have, even at this relatively early stage of its implementation, been well documented. This is unsurprising; legislators were aware they were passing a bill that could have had stronger enforcement mechanisms, opting instead for a weaker alternative. This article takes these shortcomings as its starting point to ask who, or what, benefits from the Modern Slavery Act, if not those it is purportedly aimed to help. The response is that the main beneficiaries of the Modern Slavery Act are capitalism, and the Conservative government that created the bill. The Modern Slavery Act operates through the modern slavery discourse that positions unfree forms of labour as aberrations that operate outside of capitalism, and once unfree labour practices have been framed in this way, the capitalist free market is identified not as a causal factor but as the solution. In addition, the Conservative government used the Modern Slavery Act domestically as a counterpoint to its hostile environment policy to soften their image for part of the electorate. When viewed as an artefact of capitalist thinking and state management, it becomes clear that the Modern Slavery Act makes a not insignificant contribution to the legitimacy of both capitalism and the government by conferring upon them a degree of legitimacy as the routes through which the unfree will be liberated.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalCapital and Class
Early online date2 Mar 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Mar 2021


  • Exploitation
  • modern slavery
  • Modern Slavery Act
  • Open Marxism
  • unfree labour

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