The Developed World Is Missing the Point About Modern Slavery

11 minute read
Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow. His latest book is Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World.

Earlier this month, the Walk Free Foundation — an Australian NGO — released the first ever “modern slavery index,” which hoped to highlight the countries most affected by modern slavery, and the countries that still need to resolve the problem. The countries that scored worst are, perhaps unsurprisingly, all in the developing world: North Korea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India, China and Qatar. The countries that performed best were all in Europe and North America.

Like many studies from Western NGOs, it would appear that Walk Free’s findings shed light on wrongs done elsewhere, but avoid looking closer to home (such as the conditions of aboriginal Australians and the labor exploitation on Australian-owned mines in Africa). Their index may be a useful data set, but charity and trafficking experts have argued that it presents an “unsophisticated” understanding of the problem — and thus risks giving the wrong impression. If commentators use the index as a way to declare modern slavery a problem that happens “over there,” they not only risk creating resentment in the developing world — and therefore reduce chances of much needed reforms — but may also overlook the developed world’s culpability.

It is often forgotten that the Western world was the architect of our current form of global capitalism that demands more and more goods through a reliance on cheap labor, because it is unwilling to pay their true cost. The need for cheap labor, combined with the desperation of the world’s very poor in a crowded planet, and with rising mobility, creates a whole class of people desperate for any income — even if it is only a pittance from an exploitative employer or a meager sum gained from selling their bodies. Nor should we assume that exploitative employers only exist in the countries highlighted in the index. A well-recognized and perhaps unintentional consequence of globalization is the vast inequality both within countries and between rich and poor states. This is forcing the world’s poor to pay traffickers to get them to richer areas, including the West — even though they then risk getting trapped in a cycle of abuse and indentured labor in North America or Europe.

It may even be possible that the self-serving shift toward automation and robotics in order to reduce labor costs and lower the risk of labor demands in both developed and developing world may, ironically, worsen slavery everywhere. Antislavery NGOs are starting to think about the negative consequences of robotics in terms of their fight against slavery. Increased automation would replace manufacturing jobs, which increases the number of unemployed, low-skilled workers. Their lack of an income will drive them to seek any job — making them ripe for labor exploitation.

Last year, the BBC published a damning indictment of labor conditions on Indian tea plantations that made the entire industry look like something from the slave era. Workers were being forced to use chemicals without protection, and were sometimes paid so little that they and their families were left malnourished. The documentary footage showed a very young child working in the tea fields, and included the usual ugly shots of managers doing their utmost to avoid scrutiny from the press. The response was quick: Harrods pulled products off shelves, and the Rainforest Alliance conceded that its auditing process was severely flawed. But it’s not clear if anything on the ground or in global markets will change — this was not the first revelation about India’s plantations (nor even the first by the BBC), nor will it likely be the last. Nor is it clear that retail outlets or Western brands will do much unless they have been shamed — the cocoa industry, for example, is rife with child slavery, yet there have been few calls to pull chocolate from shelves, even though the profits of Europe’s chocolate industry are created, at least in part, by labor exploitation in West Africa.

And yet, if Western campaigners demanded a boycott of Indian tea, West African cocoa or Brazilian coffee, they are missing the point. It is better to ask the following: Why are living and working conditions in, say, Assam — India’s main tea-growing region — so difficult? Are they a function of corrupt managers in the developing world lacking respect for human dignity, supposedly unlike their Western counterparts? Is it that India, Brazil, or West Africa just has a culture of treating workers poorly? Or is it because of a deeper problem in the global economy? Is it because we live under a global economic model that thrives on low wages — which can help to entrench poverty — and where international and Western markets hold tremendous power? After all, the margins made on every kilogram of Earl Grey Tea sold at Harrods are not made by Indians in Assam, but by large traders in the world’s urban centers many of which are in the West.

Modern slavery is not the same as the slavery of old (even if that, depressingly, also exists in today’s world). Many modern-day slaves are, ostensibly, “free” to leave their workplace. However, in practice, the threat of punishment and grinding poverty leaves laborers with no option but to keep working in sweatshops making the everyday things we consume. Employers in both the developing and developed worlds take advantage of these laborers’ desperate need for money to pay for the basic needs of themselves and their families back home. Laborers are mistreated, abused, underpaid, and forced to work in harsh conditions — but must continue to work for an abusive employer and an exploitative global system if they hope to make any income. Desperation and fear, not guns and chains, keeps many modern slaves in place — even if there are still many thousands of people, such as the young women and girls trafficked for the sex industry, who are forced to work under threat of bodily harm.

Modern-day slavery comes in many different shapes and forms, and today’s slave masters are not necessarily as obvious or visible as they were in the past. They may even be dressed in pin-striped suits, working in the most unsuspecting places — such is the nature and complexity of global trade and commerce. After all, cheap labor — and the cheaper the better — has always been at the heart of that essential ingredient called “competitive advantage.” Today, the successors of the slave trade are getting rich by trafficking young men and women across the Mediterranean to Europe, smuggling Central American families under the American border, or trapping the desperate poor in South Asian or Southeast Asian sweatshops, making ever cheaper goods to satisfy the never-ending appetite of the global consumer. Whilst modern slavery mostly thrives in countries with insecure economies and few opportunities for the poor, it can also thrive in richer countries. A recent report from the BBC showed young men from the Middle East forced to sell themselves as prostitutes in Greece, selling their bodies in hope of moving on. If we are willing to look hard enough, slave masters are to be found in all corners of the world, rich and poor, and sometimes far from where labor is abused. Take the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory of Bangladesh. These workers were toiling in terrible conditions in order to make clothing for such global brands as J.C. Penney, Inditex, Mango and Benetton.

The modern-slavery issue has connections with another contemporary crisis. In a high-profile interview last month, the Hollywood actress and UNHCR ambassador Angelina Jolie lamented the continued failure to solve the migrant crisis. To Jolie, conflict and desperation around the world means it is no surprise that “some of these desperate people, who are running out of all options and who see no hope of returning home, would make a push for Europe as a last resort, even at the risk of death.” But she — like many who have argued on behalf of the migrants — still misses the elephant in the room: namely, that Western intervention contributed to the violence and economic upheaval that have made these people migrants and effectively allowed them to be trafficked and even made into slaves. Many have argued this point in relation to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the West’s culpability stretches further: rich countries have pushed an economic model that, on the one hand, has lifted millions out of poverty but has also pushed far too many into lives of drudgery and not done enough to help those that are left behind — if not made their lives worse. In this environment, local elites and even governments, as in the old days, have exploited these opportunities to enrich themselves.

What needs to be remembered is that the global economic order demands cheap goods and services and, as argued above, has geopolitical links, in the case of access to resources like oil, minerals and fisheries. However, goods and services cannot be provided cheaply without cheap labor, whether it is the poorly paid tea plucker in Assam or the maidservant in Singapore. Multinational companies make their money from buying tea for less than $5 per kg in India and selling it for over $250 in Harrods, or from the Chinese migrant worker paid $3 per hour to make a $750 iPhone. The laborer is paid only what the free market considers “fair” — and, oftentimes, not even that. Such is the nature of the global economy and the part it plays in modern-day slavery.

To the Walk Free Foundation’s credit, they admit that many countries with the highest numbers of modern slaves “provide the low-cost labor that produces consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia.” But their index sometimes falls into the problem of seeing slavery as a “foreign” problem that requires “them” and not “us” to take action. They claim that Western countries have done the most to counter modern slavery in law — a strange claim, given that the Guardian recently published a story about Bangladeshi migrants trapped working in a “remote Scottish hotel,” and that many investigations in America have revealed rampant abuse in Californian farms. But even if Western countries target slavery within their own borders, they have shied away from examining how their economic and foreign policies create the conditions for slavery abroad.

Documentaries, like the one criticizing labor conditions on Indian tea plantations, allow the West to criticize foreign countries for not reaping the so-called benefits of globalization by implementing good labor practices, without sacrificing its belief in its own moral superiority. Those attacking labor exploitation in the developing world instead paint the Indian tea-plantation manager as a devious character that abuses hardworking tea plantation workers by paying below the minimum wage and keeping them in abject poverty. This may be an accurate representation, but people rarely turn their criticism inward at the Western consumer society that allows these traffickers to thrive or even how Western finger-pointing and trade rules (like agricultural subsidies) can create untenable conditions in countries already burdened with weak institutions and poor economic conditions.

Those launching public pledges and civil-society campaigns to end labor exploitation, such as CNN’s Freedom Project and Thomson Reuters’ Trust Forum, have their heart in the right place but appear to be not brave or intellectually honest enough to cut deeply into the problem. However, if modern slavery is truly to be put to an end, then the campaigns must address a global economic structure that maximizes consumption and externalizes cost by relentlessly exploiting resources and labor. The West and the global consumer can help end the modern slavery found in places like the plantations, sweatshops and garment factories found “over there.” But, for that to happen, they need, for a start, to be willing to pay the right amount for their tea, chocolate and iPads “over here.”

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