Slavery and trafficking: beyond the hollow call

It is only by being utopian that we'll be able to overcome the low-cost, high-volume retail business model that currently reigns supreme.

Neil Howard
13 June 2014

Arrest for illegal fishing of four crews of Thailand fishing ships, 2008. Demotix/Yuli Seperi. All rights reserved.The Guardian's recent investigations into 'slavery' and 'trafficking' in the Thai fishing industry have brought a welcome renewed focus on the brutal working conditions faced by many at the bottom of the global economic ladder. Guardian reporters reveal 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 has focused on the links between labour conditions at the bottom of the chain and the multi-national 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? The Guardian is clear that supermarkets must assume their responsibilities, and that 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'.

Futile individualism

Though understandable and perhaps even intuitive, this response is at once misplaced and ultimately likely to be futile. Since 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 overheads and increase its profits, either by technological innovation, by producing at larger scales, or by reducing the cost of labour, is the firm which will be able to survive and flourish, because 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 it 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. And when, as is the case for those producing primary commodities for giant western retailers, market power is so concentrated that those at the top of the chain can effectively set the price for those at the bottom, those at the bottom can often 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 which are 'excessive' and consumers for buying commodities that are 'too cheap', is to apply a moral analytical framework to a political economic system which 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, since 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.

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