I am currently reading Addressing Modern Slavery by Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma, and it’s a shocking read. Not shocking in the sense that we don’t know it exists – everyone should know that it not only exists, but many of our choices as consumers are intimately linked with this wretched reality. No, that slavery exists isn’t revelatory – but many of the stories and statistics, the main one being that there are over 40M slaves worldwide, are heartbreaking. And very little is being done about it. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone either.
Corporate Self-Regulation and Accountability
Modern slavery has no clear definition as different laws and bodies apply various attributes to it, but it is widely accepted that the modern view of the term isn’t confined to the historical context. While slavery of that sort most certainly still exists, especially in the human trafficking circles, it has broadened its scope to include a range of abuses and scenarios. For example, indebted labour and extortionate labour is often considered a modern version of slavery.
Migrant workers may be lured to a job overseas with the promise of money to send back home, but can be forced to take out loans and sell personal belongings to pay for a litany of fees. Once they arrive, it becomes evident they’ve been lied to, and even those who earn wages end up spending it all to survive and their debt grows. This practice has been used to boost the value of an employee not through their labour, but because they have such heavy debt. Here in Australia (which the authors claim has around 15,000 slaves), there have been cases of international student workers wanting more hours who have been threatened with deportation if they complained about their work conditions and pay.
While still earning a wage, the work is done under some form of threat against the will of the worker, hence them being considered under the definition of modern slavery. For the context of this piece, and given how serious this issue is, I’ll refrain from adding my own ideas of capitalist wage slavery and the stupidity that is unpaid internships or “experience” (something I have recently undergone). They are indeed issues worth talking about, however, they do not belong under the umbrella of modern slavery discussed in the book or here (perhaps as an addition to a later piece).
The dark web of modern slavery seeps through many global supply chains in all levels of production, something that many might be able to say they’re aware of but have no idea just how widespread and invasive it is. For example, about 95% of chocolate is not certified to be free of child or forced labour due to the fact that supply chains for cocoa production are complex and hazy. A referenced study said around 74 cocoa communities in Ghana alone were revealed to use forced labour and that violence (including sexual violence in some cases) was commonplace.
With such a huge amount that cannot be properly verified, you can assume that almost every piece of chocolate you eat may be associated with some form of modern slavery. The one we all hear about is the work conditions of those who make our clothing and electronics in factories, mostly throughout China and South East Asia. The prices we pay, whether it’s a cheap shirt from Kmart or a $500 suit jacket on “sale” for $30 (yes, I have bought a suit jacket for that price), you can guarantee that the people who made it were paid the tiniest amount to produce it while the profits skyrocket for corporate giants. Nike products are made in factories where violence is used to subdue attempts of unionisation among factory workers, and wastage – old or reject shoes – have been burned in piles that send toxins into the air. Similarly, Apple products being produced by Foxconn owned factories, or any of our electronic devices really, fall into this category of underpaid, overworked, and subdued workers.
But this is merely a step in the process, one that is visible because that is where the product we receive comes from and is made. The supply chain begins well before then, however, and Addressing Modern Slavery goes in depth on a few examples. A pair of jeans is made up of different materials, including a metal zipper. Where did these materials comes from? Who made or procured them? It is very likely they were the product of slave labour as well.
Around two thirds of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo – democratic in name, mostly, as one fifth of this is “informally” mined, with forced, indebted, and child labour taking place. Cobalt is used in lithium-ion batteries, a part of so many electronic devices including battery storage for renewable energy. The authors solemnly acknowledge that this is problematic, seeing as almost everyone has at least one device, if not multiple, that relies on cobalt, and the demand only goes up.
What can we, as consumers, do though? If almost every choice we make has some direct or indirect connection to modern slavery practices, are we at fault for facilitating them with our endless desire to consume more? Part of me says absolutely, because the amount of wastage that the world produces is insane. People have to have the latest phone model – we have to have new clothes all the time – quick, there’s another holiday period, buy all the cheap toys on sale. Our consumption habits certainly do play a negative role in this vicious cycle. But our ignorance and indifference, I believe, play a greater role.
So this is where we turn to ways we can try and abolish the modern slavery market. Some are incredibly easy, in theory, such as getting rid of private prisons (more a concern for the US) who have used prisoners (mostly people of colour) as free or cheap labour since “traditional” slavery was supposedly abolished. There are also a number of government and corporate initiatives to tackle the modern slavery industry, but none are actually substantial to any worthwhile degree. Corporations are endlessly raving about self-regulation and voluntary participation, and many governments are more than happy to accommodate that with lax laws that, symbolically, scrutinise corporate abuses whilst bringing no real incentives or penalties for participating or failing to do so.
Reputational damage and a “corporate social conscience” are supposed to push these insanely rich companies to follow legal and moral expectations, but these are used as general guidelines and have no teeth. Even the UN, whose various treaties and such apply to States but not necessarily transnational companies, has very little power over the supply chain concerns. Capitalism, by default in our neoliberal world, is about continuing growth and profits. Pretty words can be said about a “social conscience”, but the bottom line for a corporation and its leaders is money. This includes, in many cases, looking for ways to make production cheaper, which inevitably leads to dodgy practices and partnerships. If a CEO doesn’t feel comfortable or starts to rock the boat too much, they can easily be replaced by someone who will continue these practices.
Corporate self-regulation does not work simply because regulatory measures would hinder growth at its highest possible rate. Environmental, social, and humanitarian concerns are second to the economic benefits of their actions – that’s why the fossil fuel industry has been so successful, with their trillions of dollars in global State subsidies.
So, these entities need to be held accountable for so blatantly taking part in human suffering in the form of modern slavery, but how can we do this? Any State and social initiatives – such as Unions – are a great start, but so far, they have achieved very little. If legislation and regulation is going to work, it needs to be comprehensive and hostile towards any breaches – a watchdog with teeth. We, as consumers and voters, can demand this of our governments, but again, what are the chances of anything meaningful taking place? Mere symbolism might make us, the beneficiaries of modern slavery, feel good, but it does very little to assist the millions of victims across the globe.
We can’t just stop consuming either. Our moves towards renewable energy and battery storage – as slow as it is – is commendable, but if a sizeable amount of the world’s cobalt is sourced through slave labour, is it ethical? To me, this argument follows the same logic as environmental activists using devices – using the means currently available to us to push towards a more humane and sustainable society is not hypocritical. Arguments can be made about the ethics, but purity cannot be achieved in such a corrupt and destructive world system.
There is one way we can push for change – what if we bypassed State and corporate lines on our ground and directly support the workers themselves?
“Furthermore, [the term modern slavery] paints a picture of exploiters and traffickers that need to be brought to justice and of victims who are waiting to be saved. It raises the notion of a ‘white saviour’: the idea that the Westerners – white people, specifically – need to deliver civilisation to regions where modern slavery is rife, and free those who are exploited.”
The first time I read this passage I admittedly scoffed. Sure, I understand the point they are trying to make, but surely legitimate efforts on our behalf to try and help people in those positions cannot be overlooked or dismissed as a ‘white saviour’ move. But after considering it more, while I still think there are legitimate ways we in the West can affect positive change, it must be remembered that it is the West that is mostly responsible for much of the misery inflicted upon these people. Anything we do to “save” them will likely not be the most effective methods, and it allows us to be self-congratulatory over something we caused – well done, we stopped using slaves.
This is best summed up in a line from the following paragraph in the book: “… and denies agency to those exploited.” The story would become about how we in the West created positive change in the less savoury regions of the world, and the voices of the “freed” might be finally visible but highly underrepresented in that narrative. Instead, we could use Greta Thunberg’s campaigning as a template for how to approach this. She is a young white girl from a middle-class upbringing and has gained a global following setting off the School Strikes for Climate. She is not someone who, at this stage, is directly affected by climate change, a fate that many poorer people in Latin America, South East Asia and the Pacific, and Africa have already embarked upon.
While she is a brilliant icon for change, she (with too little media attention) tries her best to include the voices of climate scientists and Indigenous activists. She inspires people in the West, but attempts to defer much of her impact to those who equally, if not more so through direct experience, deserve attention and agency. We in the West can do many positive things to change our environmental impact, but the idea that we alone can change the world is folly. Similarly, while we can do much to change our consumer habits and tackle the modern slavery market, voice and agency must first be given to those affected most severely by it.
I hope the point I’m trying to make here isn’t too convoluted – basically, we need to support the workers and slaves directly. The best of State legislation and corporate self-regulation still leaves them without agency as individuals and collectives of their own. What needs to happen is unionisation and direct ownership – something that needs to happen in the West too, but is direly needed in areas infested with corporate slavery. The workers’ fates need to be in their own hands, their demands need to be met, and their freedom must be guaranteed. Nothing we can do directly will bring that to fruition – but we can damn well throw our lot behind them in solidarity.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but there is enough to list a broad guide to achieving this:
- Corporate self-regulation needs to be challenged.
- Legislation and real watchdog bodies need to be implemented by State or social actors, like Unions.
- The supply chain industry needs a massive overhaul in transparency (more on this in a later piece).
- Victims of slavery must be given a megaphone to amplify their voices and they must be supported in efforts to unionise and regain control of their own labour and industries without direct Western intervention.
Will any of this happen? Who knows? – if it does, it will take a long time to implement. Modern day slavery, like traditional slavery (which also exists in many forms and can be tackled in similar ways to what I have spoken about) is institutionalised to a degree we cannot even begin to comprehend, and the damage it has inflicted on its victims will no doubt take decades or centuries to overcome – intergenerational affects of colonialism are alive and well, and are brutal reminders of a brutal history many are too uncomfortable to acknowledge.
Just as descendants of colonisers and imperialists must acknowledge the privileged positions they have enjoyed as a result of historical wrongs (note, acknowledge, not forced into being shamed to guilt-tripped like some morons accuse the ‘left’ of doing), so must we all, as beneficiaries of modern slavery, acknowledge the privileged positions we have enjoyed as a result of our consumerist nature.
Over 40, 000, 000 people are modern day slaves. People are becoming more aware of this fact over time, but we still have a long road to travel. Let us hope we are swift, lest needless suffering continue for further generations.
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