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Slavery and trafficking: beyond the hollow call

Reports on modern slavery miss the target when they blame individual actions and ‘a few bad apples’. This is a systemic problem, and the only solution can be a complete system overhaul. Español

Four ships captured after illegal fishing in Thailand. Four ships captured after illegal fishing in Thailand. Yuli Seperi/Demotix. All rights reserved. The Guardian’s investigations this past summer into ‘slavery’ and ‘trafficking’ in the Thai fishing industry brought a welcome renewed focus on the brutal working conditions faced by many at the bottom of the global economic ladder. Guardian reporters revealed that migrant labourers from across South-East Asia are often tricked or coerced into accepting highly exploitative contracts, face daily dangers at sea, and are prevented from escape either by violence or the threat of it.

Importantly, The Guardian analysis focused on the links between labour conditions at the bottom of the chain and the multinational corporations perched at its top. The prawns caught by these labourers ultimately end up on the shelves of large western retailers including Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour. Those retailers are aware of the labour conditions producing the commodities they sell, and despite their predictable response to the latest revelations, it is clear that their supply chain monitoring is, at best, ineffective.

What, then, can be done? Supermarkets must assume their responsibilities, The Guardian insists, and we consumers must put them under pressure to do so. ‘It is important not to be utopian’, its Editorial reads. ‘Our addiction as consumers to cheap things and the addiction of our corporations to excessive profits are the main drivers of this process of immiseration’. Although ‘we are not going to lose our obsession with shopping anytime soon’, what we can do is demand that ‘the big chains…use their considerable power to wake up their Asian suppliers, who in turn can upset the criminal labour brokers and gang masters who manage this vicious business’.

Though understandable and perhaps even intuitive, this response is at once misplaced and ultimately likely to be futile. Its fatal flaw is that it individualises both the problem and the solution. In doing so, it fails to identify the systemic nature of what we face, and thus the systemic nature of any genuinely constructive way forward.

Let us be clear: the existence of extreme labour exploitation, ‘trafficking’ and ‘slavery’ is not the result of individual consumers being ‘addicted to cheap things’. Nor is it the result of individual multinationals being ‘addicted to excessive profits’. It is an intrinsic and structural component of globalised capitalism, and is endemic to the low-cost, high-volume retail business model that currently reigns. It is therefore only by being utopian that we’ll be able to overcome it.

Capitalism runs – and is said to be effective because it runs – on the coercive law of competition. Individual firms are required to compete against each other in order to survive in the world of the market. The firm which can lower its overhead and increase its profits the most, by technological innovation, by producing on larger scales, or by reducing the cost of labour, is the firm which will be able to survive and flourish. It will be able to sell its commodities at the lowest price and thereby capture the lion’s share of the market at the expense of its rivals.

Downward pressure on labour conditions is thus written into the very DNA of the system. At every level of the chain of commodity production, myriad firms compete against each other to turn a profit and retain a slice of the market. All of them have an incentive to skim ever more surplus off their workers. When market power is so concentrated that those at the top of the chain can effectively set the price for those at the bottom, as is the case for those producing primary commodities for giant western retailers,  often those at the bottom can only remain in business by using unfree or unpaid labour. What we are witnessing in Thailand’s fisheries, therefore, is no different to what we already witness every day in Ghana, Bangladesh or Southern Spain.

For The Guardian to lament the behaviour and culture of corporations or consumers is thus to miss the point entirely. Criticising firms for seeking profits that are ‘excessive’ and consumers for buying commodities that are ‘too cheap’ applies a moral analytical framework to a political economic system that is essentially a-moral. The Guardian needs to recognise this and also its logical implication – that ridding the world of trafficking and slavery requires us to be utopian in our thinking. It requires us to re-design the rules of the game itself, rather than merely lambasting its individual players.

As long as relations of production and exchange are determined by the demands of profit and competition under conditions of extreme inequality, then slavery and trafficking will always be with us. It is time to go beyond hollow calls for better behaviour, and to re-embed those relations in the domain of morality.

This piece was originally published on openDemocracy on 13 June 2014. It has been updated for republication.

Beyond SlaveryThis article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.

About the author

Neil Howard is an academic activist and Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

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