The Economics Of Slavery: Spending Power Is Linked To People Power


We might not be as free as we think we are, writes Matthew Clark.

Edward Santow – Australia’s newest Human Rights Commissioner – has noted that more people live in slavery today than at any previous time in world history. How is that possible?

Some of the most detailed and credible estimates of how many slaves are in the world today come from Australian research by the Walk Free Foundation. After producing The Global Slavery Index three years running, Walk Free have now joined forces with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to publish their latest research findings in Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage.

According to that ILO report there may be 40 million people living in slavery today.

Forty million is a staggering number of people. Even so, it is not as many as the number of refugees and other displaced people, which comes to about 65 million. So one could say that the displacement of refugees is a larger problem than slavery. But I doubt that debating the relative importance of the two problems interests any of the 105 million people affected as individuals. The cost to any one of those people, whether refugee or slave, is immeasurable and beyond what most of us will experience or can imagine.

Perhaps a more confronting thought is that we somehow allow this level of slavery to continue. What is it about modern civilisation that enables so much slavery? When slavery is illegal in every country of the world, how can this $150 billion per year industry continue to thrive?

A common assumption is that slavery, human trafficking, child sexual abuse and labour exploitation are signs of moral depravity by the perpetrators. But a new report co-published by Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and the University of Sheffield proposes that the cause is structural rather than moral. The report, Confronting root causes: forced labour in global supply chains, focusses on forced labour rather than slavery more generally, and claims that the problem is possible because of – in fact as an inevitable result of – our neoliberal global political economy. They locate the “root cause” in the dynamics of supply and demand.

On the supply side, the global economic emphasis on the free action of a capital-based market has marginalised a massive number of people and forced them into financial poverty. They have access to very limited protection from exploitation and are discouraged from any form of collective action such as workers’ unions. As a result there is a huge supply of vulnerable workers.

On the demand side, there is a massive desire for cheap goods and services, and a small number of multi-national companies with immense bargaining power. These major firms can dictate the rules of production, and gaps in supply chain governance make exploitation profitable.

When the two act together, the report claims that forced labour is inevitable.

We ‘kind of know’ this to be true every time we buy something based on the cheapest price. When we buy a $5 T-shirt we ‘kind of know’ that people must have been exploited in its production. Supposing the worker who cut the fabric and stitched it together took five minutes per garment. At Australia’s minimum hourly rate, that means they should be paid at least $1.50. How is it remotely possible that the cotton could be grown and harvested, turned into fabric, dye’s produced, clothing designed, manufactured, transported internationally, marketed, and packaged for $5, without workers along the way being paid virtually nothing?

We kind of know… but we don’t often allow ourselves to become conscious of what we know.

That points the moral finger towards a different form of culpability than what the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery report dismisses. It may be that the global structure of supply and demand removes any real choice from workers and perhaps even from those who are the proximal cause of their enslavement.

But we also participate in that same economic system and benefit from it. By our purchasing choices and our choice of political leaders, we share the moral responsibility for a system that continues to exploit, abuse and enslave 40 million people.

Matthew C. Clarke's career crosses academic, commercial and not-for-profit boundaries, specialising in the human impact of technology. Operating within the Christian peace-making tradition, Matthew has supported the work of justice and restoration particularly in the areas of slavery and poverty, through grass-roots community development and conflict resolution. He has post-graduate qualifications in cognitive science, science education and theology, and currently works as Senior Ministry Intelligence Analyst with the international development agency Compassion Australia.