Are you better or worse off? Understanding exploitation through comparison
Life rarely features binary choices between forced or free labour. The far more common question is, ‘are you worse or better off?’
PALERMO 20TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
What is exploitation?
Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks
Alf Gunvald Nilsen
Exploitation tends to be evaluated and classified according to levels of relative severity. Lines are routinely drawn between acceptable and unacceptable, between normal and exceptional, and between ‘severe’ and ‘everyday’ exploitation. Not everyone draws these lines in the same way, but there is nonetheless a near universal consensus that some forms of exploitation are much more severe than others. These variations in experience are most commonly described in terms of a spectrum, or continuum. Some practices are said to belong at the pinnacle. Others instead fall further down the scale.
The category of ‘modern slavery’ can be best understood as a politically motivated effort to draw attention to the most extreme cases. It primarily operates as an evocative concept, rather than a legal category, with slavery serving as a catch-all signifier for the ‘worst of the worst’. Many governments and other actors are attracted to this formula. It concentrates attention upon a small number of ‘exceptional’ cases, and thereby ends up tacitly legitimating – or at least de-prioritising – everyday abuses and systems.
This worst-of-the-worst formula only really makes sense in comparative terms. If slavery is really bad (and it undoubtedly is), then what is it really bad in comparison to? It is exceptionally difficult to determine either the nature or degree of exploitation without comparing one set of circumstances to another. Not all comparisons look the same, but there are two core themes which play a key role when it comes to contemporary assessments of exploitation: consent and treatment.
Are you better or worse off?
Severe exploitation is commonly defined in terms of 1) the absence of meaningful consent combined with 2) high levels of physical and psychological ill-treatment, unconstrained authority, and hard and unhealthy labour for little or no reward. Both of these attributes are associated with enslavement, and they therefore play a decisive role within stylised comparisons between slavery and freedom. Free labour always sounds preferable to slave labour. Who wouldn’t want to be free if slavery was the alternative?
Things are rarely this straightforward. Life rarely features binary choices between forced or free. The far more common question is instead ‘are you worse or better off?’ This question is routinely asked by workers around the world, whatever their individual circumstances, as they try to make sense of both big and small differences in wages, conditions, and alternative livelihoods. Conventional models which juxtapose slavery with freedom are frequently unhelpful and misleading here, since the vast majority of people tend to be somewhere in between, rather than at the ends of the scale. Informal and precarious work is the norm, rather than the exception, and economic systems have been designed to take unfair advantage of this vulnerability.
These kinds of variations tend to be overshadowed by abstract comparisons between slavery and freedom. There are many issues which could be raised in this context, but for my purposes here there are two main themes that need to be highlighted. First, we have the familiar division between free and unfree labour, where the forced labour which slaves endured is compared to ‘free’ labour. Consent usually plays a central role within this comparison. Forced labour is coerced, rather than consented to, which creates a contrast with voluntary contractual agreements entered into by both workers and employers. However, this rhetoric of consent frequently ends up concealing more than it reveals. There are many occasions where desperate and precarious workers have few if any alternatives, and thus ‘freely’ consent to highly exploitative conditions.
The question of whether labour is ever truly free was famously raised by Karl Marx, who argued that workers are compelled by circumstances to enter into inherently exploitative working conditions owing to the design and operation of the capitalist economic system. This not only complicates the notion of free labour. It also paves the way for a diagnosis which regards all forms of waged labour as exploitative – not just the most extreme examples. While this helps to focus attention upon underlying systems, it does not offer enough guidance when it comes to variations within systems.
Well-paid workers with permanent contracts and health and holiday benefits experience waged labour on very different terms than precarious workers with irregular and day-to-day employment. The same can be said of the self-employed, a term which refers to well-paid contractors as much as it does migrant street sellers or waste reclaimers. Marxist notions of shared experience and collective solidarity can make it hard to draw sharp distinctions between these different forms of capitalist labour. Yet these are exactly the kinds of comparisons that workers – and others – make on a regular basis. Declaring that all wage labour is exploitative runs up against the observation that some people are clearly doing much better than others.
Governments and employers who make use of forced and precarious labour routinely rationalise their actions with ‘welfare’ and ‘good treatment’.
I will return to this point later. First, we must look at the second main axis of comparison: treatment. Comparisons between slavery and other experiences and practices (and also between historical slave systems) tend to be strongly informed by subjective appraisals of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ treatment. These can sometimes be crude and simplistic, with a focus on bodily suffering at the expense of the less visible yet still massively harmful psychological and social effects of systems of exploitation. It is here that slavery is primarily defined in terms of spectacles and testimonials of extraordinary suffering: chains, ships, whips, auctions, death. This iconography has a complex and contested history, as scholars such as Saidiya Hartman have demonstrated, but it nonetheless sets up a series of markers against which other experiences can be evaluated. Efforts to associate contemporary practices with slavery most commonly rely upon an underlying assertion that they are just as bad as Transatlantic enslavement.
Treatment is an inherently subjective category. There will never be universal agreement regarding what is meant by ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘somewhere in between’. This is not just a question of cultural or personal differences. We also need to take into account the ways in which interests shape evaluations. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries abolitionists maintained that enslavement had no equivalent, while defenders of slavery maintained that ‘wage slavery’ in factories was similar to – or even worse than – legal enslavement. Modern day apologists for the white supremacist Confederacy continue to maintain that ‘servants’ on plantations were well-treated and contented.
The continuing salience of the ‘Lost Cause’ underscores the challenges involved. ‘Good treatment’ can be reduced to self-serving claims about food, clothes, and shelter, with keeping people (mostly) alive being (re)defined as an exercise in ‘benevolence’. Much the same applies in relation to comparisons between slavery and other practices. Governments and employers who make use of forced and precarious labour routinely rationalise their conduct using claims of ‘welfare’ and ‘good treatment’, where providing jobs – no matter how precarious and abusive – is portrayed as a laudable act which prevents people from starvation. Their critics instead go in the opposite direction, with the main goal being to instead emphasise their close relationship to slavery. Nearly everyone involved in these kinds of debates regards treatment as a primary litmus test. The main difference of opinion is over what ‘treatment’ actually looks like in practice.
There is a hierarchy at work here that is worthwhile teasing out further. As the graphic below helps to illustrate, comparisons between slavery and other experiences typically locate slavery at the apex of a hierarchal scale, with other categories being located further down the triangle based on appraisals of their ‘lesser’ severity. As we have seen, the placement of different experiences within this hierarchy is not based upon objective and universal indicators, but instead primarily arises through a process of subjective evaluation where one set of experiences and circumstances is contrasted with another. ‘Free labour’ is defined in opposition to slavery. The concept of ‘lesser’ forms of servitude only really makes sense in comparison to slavery. Precarious labour is primarily defined by worse treatment and less scope for consent than free labour.
The language of ‘lesser’ forms of servitude comes from the work of the international lawyer Jean Allain, who uses it to classify practices that can legally fall short of slavery, but which nonetheless have features in common with slavery. Notable examples of lesser servitude include serfdom, indentured, bonded, and forced labour, and some forms of marriage. However, the dividing line between the two categories at the apex of this hierarchy is by no means clear-cut or obvious. Like most other scholars working in this field, Allain maintains that there will be times when specific cases of forced labour rise to the thresholds associated with slavery. The lines between different categories are permeable, rather than sharply demarcated, and they frequently involve differences of degree rather than kind. Even the familiar dividing line between ‘free’ and ‘forced’ is more ideal type than accurate description.
It is also important to recognise that these assessments of relative treatment are also mediated by other considerations. Soldiers who are compelled to fight for their government in wars are frequently treated terribly, yet their ill-treatment and even death tends to be minimised and justified since they are said to be fighting for a noble and necessary cause. Colonial rulers in Africa similarly justified the widespread use of forced labour as a ‘public good’, despite the tremendous levels of suffering and death which was involved. Political prisoners in Gulags and work camps were abused in all sorts of ways because of their ‘crimes’. Migrants and refugees confined to immigration detention are routinely subject to torture and abuse, yet this is only rarely regarded as a problem or priority.
Many different rationales will always be available to justify treating some categories of people very differently to others, with familiar divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, and citizenship invariably playing leading roles. Moreover, there will also be occasions when this dynamic goes the other way, with broader notions of innocence and vulnerability ensuring that women and children secure elevated attention and concern in comparison to adult males, especially in contexts where exploitation is associated with sexual activities. Nearly everyone agrees that there is a hierarchy which distinguishes ‘severe’ exploitation from ‘everyday’ exploitation, but the placement of specific cases on the scale will always be messy, subjective, and political.
Beware of triangles
The main thrust of my argument so far is that exploitation is 1) usually understood in terms of a hierarchical scale, which is 2) most commonly structured around a series of stylised and subjective comparisons. Within this, treatment and consent frequently serve as primary markers when it comes to how and why specific practices get classified and compared. It is not necessary to endorse my second argument in order to accept my first claim. People are much more likely to argue about how the scale should be classified – such as whether or not ‘modern slavery’ is a useful category– than with the notion that degrees of exploitation can be best understood using a scale of some kind.
This is where I throw a wrench into the works. While it is obvious that not all forms of exploitation are equally severe, the triangle in the figure above can be dangerously misleading. Whenever people see triangular graphics along these lines they tend to associate the width of the triangle with the relative prevalence of the practice. This creates a misleading impression that free labour is the norm, and that ‘unfree’ practices deviating from this norm become less common the further you move up the scale. This, they assume, is why the width of the triangle steadily narrows the closer you get to its apex.
This is also where the foundational division between free and forced becomes increasingly unhelpful. Far too much importance is attached to differences between the two polar ends of the scale and not enough attention gets paid to what is happening in the middle. Only a minority of people across the globe experience either free labour or forced labour. The vast majority of the action instead takes place somewhere in the middle, where abstract comparisons between ‘forced’ and ‘free’ labour rarely resonate with lived experiences. Comparisons between forced and free are frequently far less consequential than comparisons between different versions of precarious labour.
We need a new shape.
According the International Labour Organization, there were around 24.5 million people subject to forced labour globally in 2016. This estimate comes with all kinds of methodological problems, but it nonetheless functions as a very rough marker. During the same period, the ILO also calculated that over 60% of the world’s employed population – or two billion people – were engaged within the informal economy. This total includes 90% of workers in developing countries and 67% in emerging economies. Forced labour is so rare that it would be barely visible if the proportions of this second graphic were fully adjusted to accurately represent its global prevalence.
Free labour is also much less prevalent than is commonly assumed. The wage and regulatory systems of rich Western countries are in no way representative of labour regimes more generally, yet most treatments of ‘free labour’ continue to regard experiences within post-1945 welfare states as the norm. The vast majority of workers globally do not get paid holiday, illness or parental leave. They do not have pensions or occupational health and safety provisions. Many do not have an employer at all. They are irregularly self-employed and reliant on tenuous sources of income that sometimes dry up entirely. It is also common for households to engage in mixed livelihood strategies which combine various forms of wage labour, self-employment, and agricultural subsistence.
Too many accounts of ‘free’ labour rest upon a series of prior assumptions about the kinds of rights and protections workers exercise when they ‘voluntarily’ enter into an agreement with an employer. Yet these assumptions do not apply to the vast majority of the world’s workers. Only a small minority are able to bargain with their employer over their terms and conditions from a position of relative strength. In the vast majority of cases the language of ‘consent’ ends up concealing a massively unequal playing field. The number of people for whom free labour is a positive condition are in the minority, and the increasingly popularity of outsourcing, subcontracting, and deregulation means that many people within this otherwise privileged minority are under ever increasing strain.
This is where my analysis returns to Marx and labour exploitation. Marx had a lot to say about the exploitative nature of economic systems, but his arguments do not necessarily capture contemporary variations in experience within systems. Not all forms of capitalist labour exploitation will be created or experienced equally. When people ask themselves whether they are better or worse off, they are – far more often than not – comparing different versions of precarious labour. The forced and free ends of the scale are less consequential than the variations somewhere in the middle.
The ‘big picture’ Marxist approach which regards all forms of labour as exploitative can flatten the complex ways people make their way in the world.
The better or worse off framework suggests that individuals try to make sense of their lived experiences by comparing them with the experiences of others, or to their experiences in the past. This process typically features multiple points of comparison, rather than a single reference point. One reference point is likely to be employment vs. unemployment (the ILO calculated that roughly 188 million people were unemployed in 2019, and this figure is pre-COVID). Having a job will usually be regarded as better than not having one (although there are exceptions). A second reference point focuses upon the experiences of peers doing similar work, or those doing alternative work which could be a viable option for the person in question. The third and final point of comparison is concerned with people from different social statuses. It is here that questions of plenty/privilege and poverty/precarity take centre stage.
I will return to this final point below. At this juncture, it is important to emphasise that differences between forms of precarious labour are still highly consequential for the individuals involved. Being worse of better off is not an abstract question, but an immediate necessity. If the main point of comparison is between sex work and domestic work some people are going to favour sex work. Mining may compare favourably to farming. Migrating to another country on a tied work visa may appeal more than available options at home. The ‘big picture’ Marxist approach which regards all forms of labour as exploitative can flatten the complex ways people make their way in the world.
All the pieces matter
Ongoing efforts to target individual cases of forced labour and ‘modern slavery’ have not been particularly effective. This is by no means a new observation, but it is worth reiterating here for several reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, we have the political and logistical challenges associated with trying to separate out and specifically and selectively target a small minority of extreme cases. Forced labour is much less prevalent than precarious labour, and the conditions, interests, and systems which enable precarious labour also tend to pave the way for forced labour. So there is a strong case for putting the two together (although there are also some occasions where forced labour is spatially concentrated, such as the Xingjing region of China).
Modern slavery/extreme exploitation is the tip of the iceberg. The larger whole can only be properly understood by looking below the waterline. This means raising difficult political questions, but trying to avoid these questions – as many have –isn’t working either. It is time to (re)centre the struggle for migrant and worker rights and focus on economic systems. Workers need to be able to organise and bargain collectively. Their employers need to be held accountable when they steal their wages. Migrant workers need to be able to change their employers. Lead firms in global supply chains need to be held directly accountable for abuses which consistently occur further down their chains. There are no shortage of policies and strategies to get behind here. Attempting to separate out and specifically target cases of ‘modern slavery’ is not an effective strategy.
There are a number of different ways in which extreme exploitation can be understood. In this piece I have tried to capture the logic behind how many people think about exploitation – extreme or otherwise – by focusing upon the role of comparisons. As we have seen, these comparisons can take a variety of forms. In many cases there is a strong emphasis on consent and treatment as primary markers of comparison, with the general idea being that extreme exploitation can be best understood in terms of the absence of consent in combination with highly abusive treatment. Greater scope for consent and better treatment generally moves things back down the scale. These markers are inherently subjective, however, since people frequently have competing interests in either downplaying or accentuating the effects of exploitation. Lived experiences rarely correspond to conventional distinctions between ‘forced’ and ‘free’, but instead primarily operate somewhere within the middle of these two poles.
Extreme exploitation can also be understood in other ways. Our deeply unjust global order is increasingly defined by extreme concentrations of wealth and power, which enable a small minority to leverage their privileged position to take unfair advantage of the majority. Earlier this year, Oxfam calculated that the world’s 2,153 billionaires had more wealth than 4.6 billion people, or 60% of the global population. This was prior to a global pandemic which saw billionaires add another $10.2 trillion to their existing holdings, including $74 billion for Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. This is the same Amazon which has systematically abused and exploited its workforce for years, and which has failed to offer sufficient protection against COVID for its workers.
The distribution of global wealth looks like a shallow, long-stemmed cocktail glass. The vast majority of wealth sits right at the top, while both precarious workers and precarious employers are concentrated within the stem of this glass. Precarious employers may be better off than their workers, but they are nonetheless subject to economic forces which frequently leave limited margin for error. Subcontractors in the Global South who participate in global supply chains are under intense pressure to cut costs and accelerate production cycles, and are frequently obliged to intensify their demands on workers in order to win contracts. Extreme exploitation is commonly said to arise when these suppliers push their workers too far. But if we step back from the specifics of individual relationships a different version of extreme exploitation also comes into focus. In this version, privileged corporations and individuals leverage their concentrated market power to capture the vast majority of the economic value produced within supply chains, and thereby take unfair advantage of everyone else.
Much of our thinking about exploitation is shaped by interlocking economic markets. Market mechanisms play a foundational role in determining the value of various goods and services, and thereby end up determining the going rate for different kinds of labour. This sometimes results in situations where exploitation is primarily understood in terms of pay and conditions which fall short of the going market rate. Faced with the question of whether they are worse or better off, many people will answer that they are worse off if their market value has not been properly evaluated and rewarded.
This kind of thinking is understandable yet problematic. The uncritical acceptance of market value is a recipe for normalising exploitation and inequality. When the CEO of a company earns as much as 725 times the pay of their average workers the critical question is not whether the average worker is being paid the going market rate, but how an already fabulously wealthy minority has organised global economic systems in order to take unjust advantage of a still precarious majority. If your market value is limited, does this mean that you should expect and deserve to be exploited?
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