Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

How do we choose between destitution and exploitation?
A new project exploring uncharted territory in the homeless community

by Emily Kenway


Emily Kenway

Emily Kenway is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. She has spent over a decade working on social justice issues, with a particular focus on exploitation. Her first book, The Truth about Modern Slavery’ (Pluto Press 2021), problematised the reframing of exploitation as ‘modern slavery’ and was described as a ‘powerful treatise’ in the Guardian. Her next book, ‘Who Cares: the hidden crisis of caregiving and how we solve it’ (Hachette, 2023) uses her personal experience to explore unpaid care and has been endorsed by Lady Brenda Hale and Silvia Federici, among others. She sits on the boards of Common Wealth think tank, which advocates for democratic ownership, and National Ugly Mugs, which aims to prevent violence to sex workers.

If you would like to keep in touch with Emily’s research, please email her at e.j.kenway@sms.ed.ac.uk. Further updates will also be shared here, on the CRFR blog.


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When a man drove up to Mark in an expensive car and offered him work, Mark thought it sounded excellent. It was 2009 and he’d fallen on hard times. In fact, he was homeless. The man said he’d pay Mark £50 a day, give him food and somewhere to stay. Mark said yes, but quickly found himself being trafficked into exploitative work around the south of England. He worked 18-hour days for little or no pay, and he wasn’t alone: there were around 20 workers being exploited by the same boss and his family. Physical punishments were doled out for not working quickly enough and some of them had their heads shaved. According to Mark, “it was very much like a concentration camp.”

Mark’s story is shocking but not unique. A slew of court cases, reports from charities and research publications have found links between homelessness and exploitation. These include Operation Fort, a major court case in which traffickers targeted homeless people in Poland to bring them into exploitation in the UK, pioneering work by The Passage homelessness charity in London identifies and supports currently homeless victims of modern slavery offences,  and research reports such as Cockbain and Brayley-Morris (2017) which examined three trafficking court cases in the casual construction industry and in which all 19 victims had been homeless at the time of their recruitment by exploiters.

Usually, these terrible circumstances are captured under the rubric of ‘modern slavery’, an umbrella term popularised through the 2010s to mean a range of exploitative circumstances, including forced labour, human trafficking, and domestic servitude, each with their own legal definition. There is often a sense of novelty about these terms and the situations that underlie them, but this is ahistorical. Rather than being a product of a particular moment in history, people experiencing homelessness – that is, people at the very bottom of our economic system, exiled from social norms and comforts, and potentially with other factors contributing to vulnerability – have been subject to forms of exploitation throughout history. Sometimes that exploitation has been state-sanctioned, like workhouse and prison labour, and sometimes it has been perpetrated through interpersonal violence, but it has never been absent. What is relatively new, however, is our policy commitment to tackle exploitation and to treat it as a crime. The 2015 government made this a matter of statute with the Modern Slavery Act. An array of policy commitments, programmes and funded projects have attempted to prevent severe exploitation from occurring, to protect those who’ve experienced it, and to prosecute the individual perpetrators. Accordingly, we have a criminal justice and social policy aim to tackle exploitation. This requires us to understand how and why exploitation occurs, so we can stop it before it starts.

Specific groups of people are considered at greater risk of exploitation than others. These groups share high degrees of vulnerability, making them more likely to agree to poor work offers or dodgy recruitment approaches, like that experienced by Mark. They include undocumented migrants, made vulnerable by the hostile environment, care leaving kids who are at higher risk of county lines and sexual exploitation, and people with criminal convictions, addictions, or learning difficulties. People experiencing homelessness are another such category, and to date there has been little research exploring how exploitation occurs amongst this population.

The afore-mentioned court cases and reports tell us that exploitation of homeless people happens, but the bulk of evidence treats it as a static event, rather than telling us about the process by which it occurs.

If we want to intervene and prevent exploitation, we need to understand the ‘how’, not solely the ‘what’.

My new doctoral research project attempts to do that: by conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews with people who are currently or recently homeless, and who have done things for money while homeless (whether conventional ‘work’ or other types of things, legal or not), it investigates how work occurs in the homeless community and specifically, how exploitative circumstances happen and are thought about. Where and how was the individual person approached with a work offer? By whom – a street acquaintance, a stranger, a boyfriend? When they said yes to the work offer, what factors were they considering? Or if they said no, what shaped that response? Did the work match what they’d been told to expect? Was there something about it that was good for them, despite being illegal or exploitative? What alternative options did they feel were available to them at the time of doing that work? And so on.

Investigating these processes and choices has a three-fold purpose. First, it tells us what’s happening on the ground, from the mouths of people actually experiencing these circumstances. This is vital for effective policy-making. In this regard, the project is informed by Nancy Fraser’s politics of need interpretation (1989). She tells us that the needs addressed by policy are not objectively ‘true’, but rather are constructed through a process of interpretation. Without the voices of those affected by the relevant policy area, we will surely misinterpret the situation and create unfit policies.

Second, by probing into the experience and the factors shaping it, the project demonstrates a respect for the agency, intelligence and worldly knowledge of the individual interviewees. It does not construct them purely as objects upon whom greater forces act – in the ‘modern slavery’ policy domain, as victims duped through ignorance by wily recruiters – but rather as complex human beings who make constrained choices based on personal and structural factors, just like the rest of us.

Third, by teasing out the factors that have made some people say yes to exploitative work and others say no, it hopes to build a picture of the factors that shape these responses. This will contribute a body of evidence about the protective factors that might enable people experiencing homelessness to avoid exploitation.

Interviews are already underway and thus far have generated promising insights. Preliminary results suggest some of these factors shaping assent/avoidance of exploitative work offers will be alternative income forms including mutual aid within social networks and state benefits, social warning systems, availability of free meals, prior norms associated with abuse, and addiction support or lack thereof. It is also generating a series of powerful case studies of people’s survival on the streets, offering us the opportunity to witness lives so often overlooked.