Californian anti-serf dudes, get real
An Oakland start-up has received millions from Google to reduce our ‘slavery footprint’. Is this wise?
I have 31 slaves working for me. This morning, after making my bed, sticking my clothes in the washing machine and doing the dishes, I didn’t quite feel like a slave-driver. But then I found out that several dozen people are toiling away, against their will, to keep my wardrobe full, my fridge well-stocked and my apartment warm. I’ve never met these people because most of them live in far-flung places, like China, Peru and South Africa. Some of them are also right here, in the United States, but they are working in the ‘shadow economy’.
I know all this now because I took a survey created by the Californian organisation Slavery Footprint. Its web-based slavery footprint calculator also informed me that I can cut back on serfs by, for instance, shopping less and giving up hair conditioner.
Essentially, the calculator takes into account the content of your home, your consumption habits and family size, and it lets you estimate how many people’s labour go into sustaining your everyday life and pleasures. It tells you where those people live and how your slavery stock measures up to those of your Facebook friends.
Now, Slavery Footprint will be able to develop even more ‘awareness-raising’ tools. Because, together with non-profits Polaris Project and International Justice Mission, it has received a $9.8million joint grant from Google to inform people about modern-day slavery and how to abolish it. Google is also giving away a further $1.7million to other anti-slavery organisations.
But the ‘awareness’ bit really needs those scare quotes. Because no matter how complex the algorithm that underlies the slavery-footprint calculator, its premise is so simplistic that it can only end up causing perplexity. The presumption is that most of us aren’t aware that we rely on slaves to maintain our relatively privileged lifestyles, and that we will be shocked to find out how many individual forced labourers have been involved in manufacturing the stuff that fills our homes.
Is this really true? Are we each indirectly responsible for making poor people work against their will? And does the answer to ending exploitation lie in buying more ‘ethical’ stuff?
Slavery Footprint estimates that there are 27million modern-day slaves worldwide. The United Kingdom may have passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, and Abraham Lincoln may have signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but slavery, says this organisation, is not a thing of the nineteenth century. Instead, slaves can be found up and down the supply chain: they are in mines, digging for the raw material that ends up in your iPhone; they are in fields, picking the cotton that your t-shirt is made of; and they are in factories, packaging the food you eat.
In other words, millions of people are exploited and robbed of their freedom in order to make stuff for those of us who are free and who use that stuff. ‘That smartphone, that t-shirt, computer, cup of coffee… That’s stuff we buy, and that’s stuff that comes from slaves’, says Slavery Footprint.
Of course, complexity has to give way for the sake of producing a slick app with a big shock factor, and most people who use the slavery-footprint calculator will, presumably, understand that the results shouldn’t be interpreted literally. It’s really a gimmick designed to provoke a reaction. For instance, by simply adding contact lenses to my virtual medicine cabinet my slave-count went up from 31 to 36. I’m willing to wager that there really can be no basis for arguing that five people would be literally enslaved in order to relieve me from myopia.
So, sure, let’s give some leeway for ‘artistic license’. Even so, it should be noted that the reductive design of Slavery Footprint’s calculator actually only reflects the crudeness of the organisation’s overall message.
The division of the global population into people who produce stuff against their will, people who produce stuff willingly and people who use stuff is nothing short of nonsensical. Of course, in this late stage of capitalism a vast majority of us – even very poor people – have become used to not having to dedicate our days to simply surviving. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive – all of it is made accessible through other peoples’ labour. But Slavery Footprint draws an all-too-neat division between producers and consumers. After all, those people down the mines wear protective clothing (hopefully) made by people working in factories. During their lunch breaks, factory workers eat food produced by farmers, who read newspapers written by journalists, who commute to work in trains operated by train drivers, who may download apps created by anti-slavery activists who claim that smartphone usage contributes to slavery, and so on.
So, what of forced labour, then? Slavery Footprint defines a forced labourer or slave as ‘Anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and is unable to walk away’. But the definition of forced labour does not just pertain to people who have been forced to work and are held against their will. Instead, forced labour ‘may also result when unscrupulous employers exploit workers made more vulnerable by high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime, discrimination, corruption, political conflict, or cultural acceptance of the practice’.
The problem with this working definition, as in most activism against so-called modern-day slavery, is that it negates any notion of free will and choice among the generally poor people who are being defined as exploited. For instance, a woman from a family of subsistence farmers in rural Africa may prefer to seek her luck in a big, Western city rather than accept a life of drudge at home. She will likely find few overly attractive options open to her on the labour market in that Western city, and the employer she ends up working for can probably get away with paying her a lower wage than he or she would for a legal resident. Does that make our fictional African woman a slave? Would she be better off at home on her farm than in the Western workplace? Will it help her if Western consumers refuse to buy the stuff she makes at work?
Following the logic of Slavery Footprint’s definition and outlook, the answer to those questions would be yes. From a different perspective, the African woman has chosen not to live in poverty on her farm and has decided instead to make a probably difficult journey to the other side of the world in the hope of earning money, supporting her family, learning new skills, seeing the world, or whatever.
In other words, capitalist society is certainly prone to exploitation, but it also opens up a world of possibilities. Of course, nobody should be kidnapped, held against their will or physically abused at work. But Slavery Footprint’s definition of forced labour goes way beyond such extreme situations to cover any kind of work that doesn’t look seemly from the perspective of an Oakland-based hipster.
Essentially, the Slavery Footprint initiative is coloured by a very Californian view of the world: that the ideal Western life involves starting our days with a serving of flax-seed muesli produced on an organic farm, washing it down with a cup of fairtrade coffee before making our way to a local farmer’s market in a Toyota Prius or, even better, a fixed-gear bike, and perhaps squeezing in a yoga workout session during our lunch break from our jobs as start-up entrepreneurs.
Okay, this is a pretty crude caricature. But it is no more crude than the worldview peddled by self-described modern-day slavery abolitionists.
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