Shine A Light

What is slavery?

The UK Modern Slavery Bill is based on an outdated definition of slavery.

Rohail Ahmad
9 April 2014

On 24 April 2013, 1129 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, including 32-year-old mother, Salma Begum. Another 2515 people were injured, including 16-year-old Aana Akhter who had to have her hand amputated. The workers in Rana Plaza earned about a pound a day. They were not forced to work by the Western companies employing them, including British-based Primark, Matalan and Bonmarché. Were those workers slaves?

Not according to the UK Modern Slavery Bill, whose definition derives from Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the bill essentially defines slavery as being when a person “requires another person to perform forced or compulsory labour”. This notion stems from traditional slavery, including the European slave trade and colonial slavery, and is now outdated. In fact, in a report  published yesterday, a committee of Parliamentarians, acknowledges that the bill in its current form is flawed, and asks for it to be rewritten, but still retains this definition.

This conception of slavery as being about forced labour reflects an outdated mode of thinking. Capitalism spawned the European slave trade and colonial slavery; but it is also the morphing nature of capitalism that has made this type of forced slavery, at its root, redundant. Now, slavery can be enforced through economic power alone. Only further down the chain does this become forced labour. Capitalism and the idea of the free market means that an employer, under certain circumstances, can get away with paying subsistence wages – that is just enough money for a person not  to starve; this is basic Marxian theory.

The corollary of this subsistence wage is that it leads to poverty, squalor, crime, and violence; it also leads to child labour and buildings collapsing. Historically, the international division of labour was able to consign these problems to poor countries. Reverse globalisation has meant that these issues are now returning to haunt rich countries, in the form of mass migration and modern slavery. Collapsing buildings also haunt people in rich countries due to the power of media.

If one leaves aside ethics and morals, then there is nothing logically wrong with the idea that a person is physically free to either accept or not accept a subsistence wage. But the truth is that most people are ethical and moral, which is why businesses and governments are forced to create a veneer of fairness, humanitarianism and concern. This comes in the form of “aid”, loans, charity, and anti-slavery bills; cheap labour is even presented as a comparative advantage – which it certainly is not – to create the illusion of an intellectual justification.

A far better basis for the definition of modern slavery would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 23.2, 23.3 and 25.1, respectively: “Everyone [...] has the right to equal pay for equal work” (this can be interpreted in a globalist sense, as well as a feminist one); “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”. And:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

 So, putting all this together, a more useful definition of modern slavery would be the paying of a wage that contravened these articles. The solution would be a global minimum wage that was in accordance with the above articles. Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi Nobel Prize-winning economist, called for a global minimum wage last year, following the Rana Plaza building collapse. Big business will proffer the usual stale excuses that it will lead to loss of jobs, that it would be difficult to enforce, or that it would create additional costs to businesses.

These are all red herrings, and are similar to the arguments that were used against the abolition of traditional slavery, and against modern national minimum wages. They will say that “a pound in the Congo is worth more than a pound in the UK”. This is not true: the apparent difference is merely reflective of a subsistence standard of living. They will say that any job is better than no job at all – in other words that a slave-life is better than no life. The truth is that the main effect of a minimum wage would be to spread wealth more equally, and to inhibit mass migration and modern slavery.

Actually, a de facto global minimum wage already exists. It’s about a pound a day, or about 10p per hour – the current value of a subsistence wage, which only escapes the charge of slavery by the technicality of not being zero. More concretely, a minimum wage was recently introduced for domestic workers, and FairTrade is also a version of this. A universal minimum wage would arguably now be easier to implement, rather than separate solutions.

There is evidence to show that a pound per hour would meet the new definition and would be enough to slowly pull countries out of poverty. It would also be enough to start to end the international division of labour, which is totally unfair and artificial, and was initially imposed by force during colonialism. Furthermore, it would truly address the problems of mass migration and modern slavery at their source. According to the new definition, the biggest perpetrators of slavery are not criminal gangs, but big businesses using cheap labour in poor countries. A recent article highlights the exploitation of Indonesian workers by Nike, producing England football shirts for the 2014 world cup; they are being paid 30p per hour, for shirts to be sold for £90. The article puts forward the argument – by the workers themselves – that a slave-job is better than no job. Interestingly, Nike even claims to adhere to the UN International Bill of Rights, but it is clear that a wage of 30p per hour does not do this. The article mentions that a wage of about £190pm, that is about a pound per hour, would do that.

Britain’s new modern slavery bill, even in its proposed revised form, does nothing to address the root source of modern slavery and for that reason it is bound to fail. It is completely out of date in its definition of slavery, which is no longer primarily forced labour, but economic compulsion. The victims of Rana Plaza and their families are still awaiting, a year later, the compensation they were promised. The best tribute to the likes of Salma Begum and Aana Akhter on the upcoming anniversary this month would be to recognise that they and their colleagues were indeed slaves, and to redefine the meaning of what is slavery. 

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