Have we won the moral victory?

In my talk at the Wilberforce Oak, I said that – unlike William Wilberforce and his colleagues – we no longer need to persuade people that slavery is morally wrong. However, I have begun to wonder whether I was right. Do people consider modern slavery morally wrong?

The preliminary research in the report “Consuming Modern Slavery” (by Dr Michal Carrington, Prof Andreas Chatzidakis and Prof Deirdre Shaw, 2018) found that consumers were morally outraged by child labour, but that they did not even consider forced adult labour as modern slavery: “Child slaves were viewed as highly vulnerable in every sense, and without the abilities or resources to change their situation. […]adults were predominantly categorised by consumers as not slaves – rather as exploited workers with the ability to change their conditions.”

The authors of the report also investigated the “neutralisations” that consumers use to justify indifference and inertia in relation to slave-based consumption. They identified four key neutralisation techniques, namely, denial of victim, denial of injury, condemnation of the condemners and dehumanisation of modern slaves. One consumer interviewed for the report said: “It’s a cost-benefit analysis. There are these problems [modern slavery], but I get so much benefit from it that I continue doing it.” The first few times I read that statement I was absolutely horrified that anyone could say such a thing, but then I took a long hard look at my own consumption. I still own a smartphone because it is so convenient despite the fact that I know that the cobalt in its battery was probably mined by children. I still buy prawns because my children love them despite the fact that I know that the majority of prawns are probably caught or farmed by slaves and cleaned and peeled by slaves. These are only a couple of examples.

I have quoted Amber Cagney from the “Focus on Modern Slavery!” podcast before and I would like to quote her again: “the key to that [making changes] is re-humanising people, re-humanising workers, caring about what their working conditions are like, caring if people are not paid the minimum wage, caring if they’re being forced to be there or not and not thinking ah well you’re from this country so you get paid more here than you did there so it’s ok for you to be in exploitation because it’s better than it was back home. […]If everybody is meant to be treated equally and fairly, if you’re in the UK you should be paid the same minimum wage as anybody else. Your working conditions should be safe and if everybody had those two things then modern slavery would be reduced drastically.”

This quote really resonated with me because of two experiences I have had in the last few years. Firstly, when I lived in South East Asia it was considered morally right to have a maid or domestic helper, who often lived in a windowless room, was paid very little money in comparison to local wages, was only entitled to a flight back home to see their family and children once every 2 years and who was expected to work morning to night six days a week – cooking, cleaning, shopping and usually providing a lot of child care. This was considered morally right because it was legal and it was the norm and, ultimately, because “they were better off than they would have been where they came from”. Why is it right that someone is paid a lot less than a national of the country they work in purely because they are from a poorer country? Why is it right that their working conditions are worse than a national of the country they work in purely because those conditions are better than the conditions they are used to back home? Why is this not exploitation?

Obviously, there is a difference between someone who is working in sub-optimal conditions for sub-standard pay and someone who is forced to work for no pay at all. However, even in the latter case, it has been suggested to me that that is still “better than what they have at home”.

When I was considering phoning the Modern Slavery Helpline for the first time to report a suspicion I had about my local car wash, someone very dear to me suggested that perhaps I was making a mistake. Perhaps the people working there wanted to work there. Perhaps they preferred working under brutal conditions for no pay because it was better than living in the country where they came from. The person that suggested this to me is originally from the Czech Republic. I asked her whether living in a caravan with many others, working in a car wash from dawn until dusk, possibly being subject to violence and receiving absolutely no pay and very little food would be preferable to living in the Czech Republic. The workers in that car wash could easily have been Czech.

Even if the workers’ home situation was absolutely dire, and in all likelihood it was because the ruthless people who persuaded and coerced them into slavery exploited that weakness, is it morally right that we stand by and do nothing while they continue to be exploited when they have tried to make a better life for themselves?

Recently, I listened to a Justice and Coffee podcast with John Tanago, International Justice Mission’s Director of the Centre to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children. He recommended the video “I Am Brave”, which tells the story of a survivor of child online sexual exploitation from the Philippines. She talks about how she was placed into a situation of vulnerability when her mother decided to move abroad to earn more money. There are approximately 11.5 million migrant domestic workers globally (“Global Estimates on Migrant Workers” by International Labour Organization, 2015). Who is looking after their children while they spend years separated from them?

Are we putting convenience before other people’s lives? Are we putting price before other people’s lives? Inevitably, as consumers, we are all guilty of this to some extent. We need to do better. It is a cost-benefit analysis, but surely the conclusion is that the cost of cheap and convenient goods and services to the lives of those who provide them outweighs the benefit to us? Is it time that we go against the tide of what is common practice and admit that it is not just the slave holders and corrupt governments that are abhorrent, but that, as consumers, we are all culpable?

I want to leave you with one final quote from US President John Adams in a letter he wrote to Robert J. Evans in 1819: “I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character”.

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