The political economy of forced labour and slavery

The meaning of the term “political economy” has changed somewhat through history and today its meaning is still somewhat contentious. But being something of a moral philosopher by academic interest I was somewhat surprised to learn that the concept of political economy originated in moral philosophy. The term was originally used “for studying production and trade, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth.”

With the evolution of political economy into economics we seem to have established a dominant morality for our contemporary age cut free from the Aristotlean and Judaeo-Christian archetypes of earlier years. Perhaps this new dominant Western morality is most infamously encapsulated by Milton Friedman with his assertion that the only moral responsibility of business executives was to maximise profits for shareholders within the law.

This new morality becomes increasingly problematic because the loss of the term “political” from the term is not just a terminological shift, or a philosophical one that places the sphere of economics in the realm of quantitative science rather than in that much more slippery and realistically human sphere of moral philosophy. It also reflects another important political reality: many politicians now seem to believe that their responsibility in regulating business is restricted to asking business how it wishes to be regulated.

You can see this borne out if you look at the chapter on supply chains in the recent report in the UK of the Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons on the “modern slavery bill”: some people, myself included, argued to the committee that a law on forced labour in supply chains should be modelled on the UK Bribery Act making individual business executives legally accountable for forced labour in their supply chains. This idea was dismissed out of hand. Others argued for, perhaps a lower standard, a law modelled on the Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act. There was a parade of evidence from business opposing this. What was acceptable to business was a slight modification of the Companies Act to require them to mention slavery in their annual reports. This of course became the committee’s recommendation.

The practice of business and trade substantially divorced from politics would be problematic if we were still living in an 18th or 19th Century political economy where most businesses were more confined and defined by national borders. In the contemporary globalising economy it is particularly devastating for millions of vulnerable workers, particularly those in poor and corrupt countries where rule of law is slight or where the law is cynically manipulated by the powerful to allow the exploitation of the vulnerable. In this contemporary globalised political economy those who do much of the production of goods and services are separated by great distances from those who commission the production and from those who consume. The scale of these distances means that it is now considerably easier to ignore the death or suffering of those workers than in the past when they were being produced in the same city or country as the consumers and bosses.

The expansion of globalisation means that the international law governing this new approach to doing business becomes increasingly vital. Unfortunately, as Tom Bingham notes in his book Rule of Law, international law has never been the most robust area of law, and that is probably putting the matter very mildly where international business is concerned: Indeed the question of how trans-national business can be held to legal account is a matter that Bingham, one of the most distinguished British jurists of the past 50 years, never even considered in his otherwise exceptionally fine book.

These risks are compounded because, to use a legal metaphor, there is a prima facie case, I believe, that a number of businesses, countries and regions of the world are basing their competitive advantage on the use of forced labour in their supply chains. Anti-Slavery investigations in India have shown how the routinised used of the forced labour of girls and young women is now a central feature of garment production for northern hemisphere markets. Further investigations in Thailand have shown how forced labour is a significant feature of production for export markets, most notoriously perhaps in the fisheries that supply prawns to our supermarket shelves.

In both these countries the failure of international rule of law is compounded by a failure of national rule of law. For Dalits in India, for Lao, Burmese and Cambodian migrants in Thailand, the notion of equal protection before the law would be a laughable notion if the consequences of its absence were not so tragic. In India the the courts are so overworked that it would take hundreds of years to clear the back log of cases in Delhi alone meaning that factories that use forced labour of vulnerable workers, such as those producing cotton garments in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, can act with virtual impunity. In Thailand, police describe migrant workers as walking ATMs, people to be harassed and extorted from not to be protected.

Countries such as India and Thailand are, however considerably more advanced in terms of rule of law than those such as United Arab Emirates and the Gulf states which have fashioned the law, most glaringly with their use of the kafalah system, in order to facilitate the forced labour of vulnerable migrant workers. The 2022 World Cup is already being prepared using the forced labour of thousands of south Asian migrants to Qatar. Again the western companies who trade with and profit from this forced labour system and, most craven of all, FIFA who facilitated one of the greatest forced labour opportunities since the end of the Cold War, are able to do so with impunity.

The kafalah system, which is also practiced in the UK in relation to domestic workers, is only the most glaring example of how national and international law ratchets up the risks for migrant workers seeking decent work by failing to provide sufficient opportunities for safe migration. There is an hypocrisy at the core of this attitude to migration: on one hand governments will decry contemporary slavery and praise those migrant workers whose remittances are often more important contributions to their countries development than international aid. On the other hand those same governments will refuse, lest they upset business interests to back measures in international law that have some prospect of making the world a little safer for them to seek decent work in.

So, if we are considering the contemporary political economy, how human beings arrange their law, custom and government to facilitate production and trade it is clear that large portions of the political economy are crafted to facilitate the exploitation and enslavement of vulnerable workers and that the economic and geographic separation between those who craft they system and the screams of those who serve it allows complacency to build the inertia that allows for the lack of change.

I went to see Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lumumba in A Season in the Congo a few months ago. There is one notorious scene in that play where back in Europe the Western business interests are shown in conference discussing how much they had to give up in Congo without affecting their principle interests. How to ensure not so much that the new boss becomes the old boss, so much as how to ensure that the old bosses remain the bosses under a facade of some form of change.

I think we see a lot of that still with some of the recent political posturing regarding contemporary slavery. In the UK there is a strong emphasis in the “modern slavery bill” on a criminal justice response to slavery, and a refusal to contemplate a migrants’ rights perspective on the issue, a perspective that might contribute more usefully to the majority of people enslaved by disorganised crime as well as the minority in the hands of organised crime.

I don’t wish to be too churlish about the US and UK military/intelligence responses to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, because I believe such a response is necessary, but there are already hundreds of thousands of child slaves in Nigeria, carried off and raped in ones and twos rather than hundreds, under the thinest of veils of respectability that is provided by forced child marriage and the fifth wife form of enslavement. We still await a systematic response for these numberless, nameless victims of slavery across Nigeria and the rest of West Africa. A minimum that should include a commitment to obtaining universal children’s education in the region on a curriculum that has a strong emphasis on girls’ and women’s rights.

Most people who have the power to shape law, government or custom in a fashion that would undermine aspects of slavery are against slavery in principle. Few of them are, however against slavery in practice. When they do engage with the issue they do so in a manner that is reminiscent of the political economy of the old Soviet Union, statist, inflexible and oblivious to the functioning of the market economy, when one of the things we do know about slavery is that it is highly entrepreneurial and constantly evolving: an exemplar of unfettered capitalism in fact. Now a lesson we should have learned from the Cold War is that when a statist bureaucracy confronts a free market system the free market approach will triumph. And that is what is happening at the moment.

What I believe we need is a much more social democratic approach to this challenge: one that recognises the human face of the problem and ceases to treat the economic and business aspects as somehow sacrosanct or inevitable. This implies a strong emphasis on regulation of international business, putting forced labour abuses on the same legal basis as bribery is currently treated in the UK, empowerment of those vulnerable to slavery and a co-option of the diverse institutions of society from aid agencies to the courts into the struggle. Slavery eradication must be put at the heart of anti-poverty efforts; the authority and capacity of national and international courts must be extended to allow them to effectively hold to account businesses that may otherwise transgress the basic ideals of the universal declaration of human rights. This should also imply increased attention to safe migration and a holding to account of those states that tolerate slavery within their borders.

There’s a lot of folk at the moment want to be the new Wilberforce, the shinning hero who delivers a great leap in moral progress. I don’t have a lot of time for that. Harry Truman once said “Its amazing what can be achieved when you are not bothered who gets the credit!” Indeed that is because, as the song says, it is “we” who “will overcome” not me.

So that is an immediate question: how do we, professionally, as citizens and collectively fashion a political economy that repudiates slavery in all its forms and all its evolutions – and to hell with who gets the credit for that.

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