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We've Got to Stamp Out Modern Slavery
Workers are powerless against the contractors used by multinationals who relocate to wherever production is cheapest
The re-emergence of slavery on ships off West Africa is profoundly shocking but it is not a surprise. Last week slavery its modern form came to light in cases of forced labour uncovered on trawlers fishing for the European market. In a haunting echo of the 18th century triangular trade, west African workers were found off the coast of Sierra Leone on board boats where they lived and worked in ships' holds with less than a metre of head height, sometimes for 18 hours a day for no pay, packed like sardines to sleep in spaces too small to stand up, with their documents taken from them and no means of escape.
It is no accident that globalisation has seen the reemergence of slavery. The human degradation off West Africa is replicated elsewhere. I first came across modern slavery when investigating the UK chicken supply chain in Thailand in 2002. UK retailers and manufacturers now source much of their cheap commodity chicken from Asian factories. On the subcontracted farms around Bangkok that supply the international poultry processing factories I found illegal Burmese migrants trapped in debt bondage and forced labour. Fifteen Burmese refugees, interviewed for me by the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, described sleeping in one room on the floor working whatever hours their Thai boss required of them, without pay and without a day off for two months. They had been kept in order by violence and by the threat of deportation if they complained.
In Brazil, investigating the explosion in soya production in the Amazon region for my book Eat Your Heart Out, I heard of the slaves found on farms being cleared in the rainforest. A Dominican priest, Xavier Plassat, who campaigns to free them told me how he had just returned with government swat squads from a farm 60km off the road where 200 workers were being kept in slavery, labouring without pay, deprived of freedom of movement and controlled by debt bondage. They had no clean water and little food and were living 30 to a room. Plassat believed slavery and agribusiness were inextricably linked. Monoculture for export, the large-scale intensive farming dominated by transnational corporations (TNC), and favoured by trade rules and international financial institutions, had created the conditions for slavery by eliminating the traditional small scale farming that provided food for 60% of the Brazilian population. He is not alone. Kevin Bales, the great expert on modern slavery, has shown how driving peasant farmers off the land has created a new supply of dispossessed workers who can be pressed into this condition.
Expansionist agriculture and empires have always depended on slave labour, as Latin authors of the Roman empire complained centuries ago. Today, we live in an era when the dominant powers don't officially "do" empire, so economic control takes a new privatised form in the TNC. Modern slavery has evolved to match. The straightforward ownership of chattel slavery is gone, replaced instead by an outsourced, subcontracted kind of control over people, which can be terminated when they have served their purpose. The transnationals universally abhor any idea of slavery or forced labour and yet it is found in their supply chains. Slaves and exploited migrants, often driven into migration by the squeeze on family agriculture, are what make the economics of today's agribusiness work.
In a globalised world, footloose corporations have relocated to wherever labour and resources are cheapest. And then in order to compete, companies in the developed world have reimported the labour conditions of the least developed countries with the fewest protections back to Europe and the US. So even in rural England I have found examples of debt-bonded South African workers and Anti-Slavery International finds itself taking up the plight of Mexican farm workers suffering extreme exploitation in California.
It was in part revulsion among consumers of the products of slavery in the 19th century that led to the movement to abolish it.
The sugar trade of the 17th and 18th centuries unlocked the power of mass consumption in England. Slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean laboured to produce it, creating wealth that mostly returned to Britain, and for others to accumulate capital. They paid with their lives. But it was also the sugar trade that threw up one of the earliest examples of ethical shopping.
An early 19th century sugar bowl in London's Museum of Docklands is inscribed with the message: "East India Sugar not made by Slaves. By Six Families using East India instead of West India sugar, one less slave is required." Like so much ethical shopping it exposes its own limitations. Abolishing slavery in the 19th century required reform of a whole political and economic system.
How should we respond to news of slavery re-emerging today? Stamping it out needs as big an overhaul of prevailing power structures as previously. And yet, it was on small tokens of concern that a political movement against slavery was originally built. It's time we made our revulsion clear again.