Nobody likes to feel that they benefit from slavery, but the modern “good life” is underpinned by people forced to produce more than they consume so that others can consume more than they produce.
One could be forgiven for thinking that certain major historical points had been long settled by now. In these interesting times, though, long-buried conclusions are once again rearing their ugly heads for review. For example, people assuming that World War II decided once and for all that Nazis are evil and shouldn’t be given consideration in polite company are probably distraught at witnessing the debate over whether or not the enemy we fought seventy-odd years ago has a winning point today. Similarly, it’s long been taken for granted that slavery is a human rights non-starter. Although slavery is now banned around the world, innovative “entrepreneurs” have found ways to skirt anti-slavery laws. Nobody likes to feel that they benefit from slavery, but the modern “good life” is underpinned by people forced to produce more than they consume so that others can consume more than they produce, and it has been for a while.
People thinking about modern slavery likely imagine sex workers. Forced sex work certainly exists, and in more common settings than most people may think, such as truck stops throughout the United States. As awareness spreads, though, people as diverse as truck drivers and emergency room workers are taking action to clean this up and protect the victims when they can be found.
Anywhere there is work to do, profit to be made, and people who want to enjoy the benefits of civilization without paying the full cost, there’s a chance for slavery to rear its ugly head. Agriculture has been slavery’s raison d’être almost since people noticed you could grow food instead of simply gathering it. De facto agricultural slavery spans the world, from undocumented immigrants working American fields to Romanian workers in Sicilian greenhouses, with the wide range of abuses one might expect desperate people to endure.
However, the global hot-spot for human bondage is Asia. In 2016, the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing slavery in the seafood industry. AP reporters went to great lengths to find and speak to men forced to procure and process fish and shrimp throughout Southeast Asia, much of which found its way to American grocery stores, restaurants, and even pet food factories. One man who returned home to Myanmar, freed because of this investigation, had been a slave for 22 years. This is the price we (don’t) pay, though, to be able to eat luxury seafood on the cheap. That’s one way we benefit from slavery.
How the AP uncovered secret slavery behind the seafood in your supermarket, by PBS NewsHour
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are home to half of the slaves in the world. Like the men who were technically paid for laboring on Thai fishing boats, Indian bond slaves are lured by money. When you live on the edge, there’s always going to be some emergency you’re not financially prepared to cover, and in those moments, the local businessman may be there to help with a small infusion of cash. Of course, he expects some repayment, maybe just some work at the quarry. While you’re there, maybe your kid gets sick, and the quarry doesn’t really pay enough to cover your debt and pay for medicine too, but the boss can help with that, for just a few more years of labor. After all, he saved your child’s life, right? Surely you owe him something!
In the end, if there is an end, debt bondage keeps people in slavery for far longer than the small amount of cash provided to workers justifies. Imagine working for $10 a year, doled out at just the right moments to cement your loyalty, especially when you’re convinced that there are no other options available. There’s an element of Stockholm syndrome as well, when people taken prisoner begin to identify with their captors.
It all adds up to significant money for the one in control of the situation, though, who appropriates the products of cheap, forced labor, especially if doing so enables him to undercut more humane competition. If those products go on to “create jobs” halfway across the world, or at least make it easier for those in the West to enjoy a higher quality of life for less money, that’s a way we may, perhaps unknowingly, benefit from slavery.
It’s easy to imagine people who force others into slavery to be deliberately immoral sadists. I’ll address these people in Part 2.