Servitude: the way we work now

Exploitative work contracts have become the norm. Casual, ill-paid or unpaid work creates servitude. In such a climate actual slavery, though illegal, flourishes.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
16 April 2015

Flickr/derpunk. Some rights reserved.

A contingent of labourers climbed down from the lorry to begin work on some road repairs. The foremen hurried them up gruffly, contemptuously. I was surprised none of the men responded in kind. Why did they take it? And I looked again at the men. They were not used to labouring. They had the look of clerks. They were office workers who had lost their jobs in one of the repeated waves of recession. This one was the early Eighties when industry was vanishing. The effects on an industrial town were traumatic. I was discovering this reality teaching in a Midlands college. And what I saw was a group of proud men humiliated on some back-to-work scheme. Nobody should consider ordinary work beneath them. I certainly haven’t. But this was awful. Far from being sympathetic, the foreman was more like a gang master. The men were not in chains. The foreman had no whip. But emotionally that was how it looked.

These men had rights, but they were limited. Refusal to work meant loss of benefits. So they accepted the taunts of a rough-tongued supervisor. I saw in that man how slavery works. Cultures that accept slavery have no difficulty finding overseers with whips. Regimes that use torture easily recruit torturers. There is no question that human nature (something we all share) contains its potential element of cruelty. In certain conditions we can all display selfishness and spite for their own sake. We can take pleasure in hurting others who have done us no harm.

The justification is that it has to be done. We are dealing with lesser beings, beasts that respond only to the whip. We are taking savages from their barbarity and offering them the chance of civilisation. Or we are meting out punishment to those who deserve it. Or we are doing it from economic necessity, for the greater good of society. The great engine of civilisation needs its machines. There are those whose destiny is to be a machine.

To justify the condition of the slave you must take away the slave’s humanity. I remember talking to some (supremacist) white West Indians who could not accept that some slaves in the Americas were white. It was to have been the fate of David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. That was fiction with a basis in reality. But no, slaves were African. Most were, but the point is that some were European. That brings the condition of slavery closer to home. It becomes more imaginable. They are no longer the anonymous other, but people like ourselves. Not everyone can accept that.

That slavery is beyond the moral boundary is now universally accepted. No legal system in the world accepts slavery. That is an advance. But a moral precept is not a description of reality. Slavery exists in the world. One does not need to travel to remoter parts of the world to find it. There are several thousand slaves in our country now. It is a fact well reported but not absorbed into the general feeling. People are aware of the incidence of forced labour on remote farms. Popular police dramas like Scott and Bailey do good work in this regard. But forced labour is not a rare occurrence in out of the way places. There are slaves in the cities. They are not chained, nor are they free.

Perhaps you have passed them in the street. One sign of their servitude is the lack of English. They have no easy means of association with society at large. Some are here legally, but only to work for a particular employer. They cannot withdraw from their contracts. Others are here illegally. They have been trafficked across international borders. Without the correct documentation to reside and/or work in Britain their rights are limited or non-existent. They do not appear in official statistics. They do not exist. They work, often as prostitutes, but also in domestic drudgery and heavy labour for survival rations and basic shelter alone. There are an estimated 13,000 such people in Britain today. 

It occurs to me that some slaves may not understand their actual condition. ‘Rescued’ from dire poverty and squalor in their home country, in Britain they are fed and clothed. A cold attic is better than a hot tin shack. Some, of course, will be hopelessly demoralised. Prostitutes, punished for being pretty, punished for being poor, may be too ashamed to escape. They may be too frightened with a well-founded fear. Where do they go for help? How do they know they can trust uniformed officials in a foreign city whose language they barely speak, in a country where they have no right to be? I have seen passport control suspicious and contemptuous of ethnic minority fellow citizens, British-born. What trust can you place in uniforms, especially if you come not from a Western democracy but from chaos and violence?

Fear is perhaps at the core of the problem. How many of us know what real fear is? The woman in hiding from a violent husband is fearful of all men, and petrified that her husband is going to find her. Fear distorts perceptions and magnifies problems. It isolates the individual. In your cell you wait for the interrogator. You are utterly alone. ‘They have abandoned you,’ is the interrogator’s taunt. The runaway slave, yes even in Britain 2015, is truly afraid, afraid that there is no refuge, no rescue.

Slavery is more than a means of exploitation, of labour at minimal cost. It is a means of controlling human beings. Reducing a person to a machine is a crudely effective method of manipulating social relations. The slave in the modern world is outside of society, yet somewhere hidden within its web. The condition of slavery is informal, the presence of slavery invisible, yet it is acknowledged as undeniable without being legitimate. There is no slavery as an institution, though in practice there are slaves.

This has been fully reported in prominent journalism (BBC News and The Guardian, for example). It has received government attention. Theresa May’s outrage and determination has been forthright and clearly sincere. Forced labour without remuneration has been outlawed in the United Kingdom since the 18th century.

And yet in that same century the Chevalier Johnstone, a leading Jacobite, noted how the miners of Northumberland would have joined the Bonnie Prince had the Jacobite army taken an eastern route down. It was no great concern for the Stuart cause, but, the Chevalier observed, it was a means of “escaping their slavery”. That word. In theory they were free men, but in actuality they were bound by poverty and ignorance to a life of unremitting toil. Or, as a character in Lee Hall’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ says, “Why, man, this is Siberia.”

The slaves who move among us like ghosts are barely visible because the condition of many workers is unsatisfactory. People who in law are free are bound by economic necessity to work for less than the living wage (‘apprenticeships’), no pay (‘internships’), or in uncertain conditions (‘zero-hours’ contracts). They are free to leave if they wish. Like Okies in the Dust Bowl they can load up the truck. They at least had Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. Who speaks for the zero people? 

A few commentators, notably Polly Toynbee, speak up. But the problem has yet to enter the general consciousness. When popular dramas fully take note then we’ll be getting somewhere. But can people believe that smartly-dressed, well-qualified office workers are exploited? We think of sickly, half-starved wretches in rags, not middle-class graduates.

I saw those unemployed clerks being roughly treated. It is less easy to see the office manager refusing sick leave, demanding unpaid overtime, exaggerating trivial errors, threatening by look and gesture, and reacting to legitimate challenges as ‘gross misconduct’. All this for little or no pay. Workers may not be slaves, but the difference between service and servitude is of decreasing interest and value in the labour market. Unemployment is permanently high, even after all the massaging of the figures. Unions have so little influence they are barely remembered. This is how things are. How could it be other? Helotry has returned, a word so rare now that my computer doesn’t recognise it. But it exists.

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