The New York Times recently published an article with the provocative title, Slavery Becomes a Personal Question Online.
The piece is about a new website called www.slaveryfootprint.org, created by Fair Trade Fund, a nonprofit group that was funded by the State Department. The website shows how many common consumer items depend on slave labor during some part of the supply chain. The goal of the nonprofit is to educate and agitate consumers to do something about it, like demanding that companies carefully audit supply chains to ensure, that no “slave labor” was used to manufacture its products.
According to the State Department, there are 27 million slaves globally. Slavery Footprint defines slavery as being “forced to work without pay, being economically exploited and being unable to walk away.”
Of course it is probably a shock to most Americans that there are 27 million slaves worldwide, or that their soccer balls, cosmetics, chocolate, clothing and produce may have been produced in part by coerced and unpaid labor. It is certainly a terrible fact.
However, the 27 million doesn’t even come close to reality. It does not include the 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S. (25% of all the incarcerated people on the planet) who are forced to work for little or no pay. Prisoners do not have a choice. They are required to work. They do not get collective bargaining. They have no right to organize unions. When they are paid at all, it is less than a dollar per hour, even though UNICOR, the federal prison industry, brought in half a billion dollars in sales in 2001. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished chattel slavery and indentured servitude, but left intact coerced prison labor.
Even if the website is successful in mobilizing the public to demand audits and “slavery-free” products, they will fail to end slavery. Companies that rely on cheap labor will find ways to hide their practices from consumers, while continuing to exploit desperate, gullible, impoverished people seeking any promise of a better life. As long as poverty wages prevail in impoverished countries, people will do whatever they can to feed their families. If a job shark offers a seemingly good nanny, agricultural or restaurant job in another country, there will be takers. If that shark turns out to be a slave trader or pimp, there will continue to be slaves.
In other words, the “slavery” that our society and liberal do-gooders see as a freakish abomination, is actually just one of the slithery tentacles of capitalism, a banal and expected consequence of the lust for profits. Once wages and working conditions have been reduced as much as possible, the only way to increase profits further is to not pay workers at all. And when the only jobs available to a community are those with insufficient wages to keep a family alive, people will take risks, including accepting sketchy job offerings that may turn out to be slavery.
This brings up another form of slavery that the most Americans refuse to acknowledge: Wage Slavery, the type of employment that the majority of Americans have. It is called wage slavery because of the parallels to other types of slavery. If we look at the slaveryfootprint.org’s definition of slavery—being forced to work without pay, being economically exploited and being unable to walk away—it is clear that anyone who is an employee or works for a wage is in fact a slave.
First, we are all exploited economically. The definition of exploitation is to not be paid the full value of one’s labor, which is exactly how capitalists are able to make their profits. If eight hours of labor result in $200 worth of product, the capitalist pays the worker $80 and pockets the rest. This is exploitation.
But what about the coercion, aren’t we all free to leave and seek other employment?
Of course we do have this freedom, in theory. It is the reality that is the problem. A person with a family, or a mortgage, or medical bills, may in fact have no choice at all, but to trudge on with whatever employment seems to be secure for the moment, rather than risk becoming homeless or losing one’s children to the state. In the current economy, with the average unemployed worker taking up to a year or longer to find work, few people can afford to leave a lousy job on speculation that they will get a better one any time soon.
There are other conditions of work that make the typical wage earner seem like a slave. The artisans and guildsmen of the past owned their own shops. They controlled the tools and machines of their trades. They set their own hours, prices, and working conditions. Wage earners today, in contrast, must obey the rules of their companies and their bosses. Most have very little flexibility or say in their hours or working conditions. One loses his or her right to privacy and freedom of expression in the workplace. Bosses are permitted to monitor your internet usage and, in some cases, your private life.
Certainly we are not forced to work without pay, one might argue. If we are lucky, we might even earn enough to live a pleasant middle class lifestyle. However, by this logic, prisoners are not forced to work without pay, even if their wages happen to be 40 cents per hour, or less than the typical wages in Haiti. So if we consider prison labor to be slavery, which it certainly is, then why not also include other wage labor in which workers are paid only a fraction of a percent of what their bosses make?
This is not to belittle or ignore other forms of slavery, but only to point out that the types of slavery bemoaned by Slaveryfootprint.org can never be abolished so long as other forms of exploitation continue. People need to have good opportunities to provide for their families locally or they will continue to take dangerous risks that could result in their unpaid servitude. And as long as pay and working conditions are deplorable in one country, employers will continue to transfer operations to those countries, driving down wages and working conditions here.
So if we really care about ending slavery, then we must not only acknowledge the relationship between wage slavery at home and human trafficking abroad, but organize with each other and workers internationally to improve pay and working conditions for everyone. Furthermore, by recognizing that we are in fact wage slaves, we can start to change organized labor’s emphasis on more jobs (and hence more wage slavery) to one of worker control and ownership of the workplace.