Crime without Punishment: Slavery and Capitalism

There are currently an estimated 40 million people enslaved in the world, more than half the population of the UK today. Justine Nolan and Martin Boersma in their book Addressing Modern slavery point out that due to the general global abolition of slavery its nature, features and telling signs have changed. To understand slavery in the modern world we must discard our out-dated preconceptions of slaves being directly bought and sold from an established “slave market.” Nowadays slavery, more often than not, consists of vulnerable people falling, being coerced, or tricked, out of desperation, into working on unlawful terms of employment and workplaces until ultimately, becoming trapped into slavery.

As well as the changing nature of people’s tragic journeys to slavery the nature of slave ownership has also transformed beyond recognition. The number of slaves in the modern world cannot be as high as 40 million without a concentrated industrialised effort to both coordinate such a work force and to obscure it so effectively from view. The very word slave is rarely heard in common parlance. Replaced with terms like “workers in sweatshops” or “poverty wages” employed euphemistically to avert using the uncouth and repugnant term slave. We in the west may recognise, associate with and even have affection for brands, thanks to copious propaganda (or marketing), that use slaves. 

These new features of modern slavery, of coercive control and indirect or obscured ownership are exactly why the case of Boohoo cannot be understated. On Sunday the 12th of July the Sunday Times published the story that Boohoo suppliers in Leicester were employing their workers on a rate of as little as £3 an hour, on an extremely large scale.

It is clear from the Times investigation that a great many of these factory workers were immigrants and that their lack of English language skills allowed the factory bosses to easily inflict these illegal conditions upon them. Coercing them to fix their hours and sign on. Secondly, minimum wage in the UK for over 25s is £8.75 whilst employees of Boohoo factories in Leicester were made to survive on half that. Presumably to get around auditors and to keep up the pretence of proper employment practice workers were encouraged to under-report the hours they’d work, thus equating to a legal wage, and claim benefits on top of their wages. This resulted, in effect, in the government subsidising the factories wage bill on a massive scale.

Whilst Boohoo as well as other fashion retailers have scrambled to save face, distancing themselves from the factories implicated in the report, making this out to be news to them as much as it is to the consumer. Sadly, for Boohoo, these excuses are as feeble as their employment practices and simply do not hold up to scrutiny. As far back as 2015 Leicester University came out with a research paper finding slave labour in Leicester’s textile factories to be ‘endemic.’ Since Boohoo are so committed to monitoring supply chains for environmental concerns, as they assure their customers on their website, they must have simply overlooked the slavery in their factories in a more desperate search for pollution. The fact is Boohoo was well aware of the slaves put to work in their supply chain and quite content to keep them there because, as with anything under capitalism, it was what was best for the bottom line. 

However, Boohoo was not the only complicit party in this sordid tale, far from it. Like most watershed moments as the week has gone on more and more individuals in the business are coming forward with testimony elucidating the fact that slavery has been practiced in Leicester’s factories and has been common knowledge for years. Rival manufacturers complain that competition in the industry is so tight that businesses simply can’t compete to secure Boohoo contracts without compromising legal employment practices. This is as close as one can get to an admission from someone involved in the industry that one can simply not compete, and thus exist, in the free market without enslaving one’s work force. Perhaps it will take readers a second for this to sink in as it may be the first time these ideas have been presented to you so starkly so I’ll repeat; one cannot compete on price in the free market without enslaving one’s work force.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, speaking on the subject in the house of commons this week called Modern Slavery ‘a scourge’ and announced a cross-government task force to investigate and ask ‘the difficult questions’ of businesses that, presumably, haven’t been asked before. That is, not before hastening to implicate Leicester’s local authorities failure to investigate trading standards in the city, despite the fact that core funding for councils has been cut by £16 billion in the last ten years Leicester specifically has suffered more than £100 million worth of cuts. Besides this central government must hold its hands up and accept responsibility as there are no less than four central government bodies responsible for uncovering and enforcing employment practices. HMRC, The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate and The Health and Safety Executive have all failed to identify Modern Slavery on ‘endemic’ scale. 

But what possible reason could there be for central government overlooking practices that most citizens believed to have been outlawed since the 1833. The Boohoo story, from market stall to billion-pound business, appeals spectacularly to the conservative-liberal tradition. In a recent article for The Spectator Liz Truss praises Boohoo as the new heroes of radical conservatism, for its #DoYourThing risk taking nature. In fashion, as in tech, as in any other industry you get ahead by ensuring you are the cheapest option. Sure marketing helps, but if you are not willing to resort to utilising literal slave labour the invisible hand of “the market”, or Boohoo, will crush you. Not a single executive or manager will be reprimanded for any activity that by any moral standards are acceptable. 

But as I say, Boohoo is not unique and neither is the UK government’s complicity. The US is home to more than 25% of the worlds prison population and only 4% of the population. It goes without saying that there are more prisoners in the so-called land of the free today than in any other country in history and with this historically unprecedented population they force prisoners to undertake labour that has benefited many well-known brands and hundreds of unknown ones as well. These include McDonald’s, Target, IBM, Boeing, Intel, Wal-Mart (parent company of ASDA), Victoria’s Secret, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike and Honda. In the Documentary Angola for Life we see inmates forced to work for as little as 2 cents an hour on the very grounds of a former plantation. This is before one even mentions the astronomically disproportionate black population of inmates, being forced for no wages to work profiting white companies. After the civil war the 13th amendment outlawed slavery, ‘except as a punishment for crime’. So began the mass incarceration of black people for petty crimes and he defacto continuation of slavery. Until we have the massive prison industrial complex we know today. 

We in the West rightly look in horror to China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, interred in labour camps, forced to work in factories which, once again, benefits the likes of Apple, Nike, BMW, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen. Whilst we are acutely aware of this criminal behaviour abroad, we are blind to the racialised slavery in the UK and US. 

According to estimates upwards of 150 million children are employed in some definition of sweatshop. Whilst it is difficult to comprehend on such a scale, we cannot understate this injustice. 150 million children are subjected to Dickensian working conditions including maiming and death and why? It is so the titans of the textile industry can make the extortionate multi-billion-dollar profits as is their fiduciary duty. 

While numbers can be found for children the number of adult workers in the developing world in a state of employment that the west would deem inhuman is impossible to say. Not because the number is impossible to ascertain, Apple, Nike and VW need only research their own supply chains and ask the question that surely has never arisen, what is the true cost of our success? 

The reality is that the economic affluence and material wealth of modern society, which upholds the stasis of political parliamentarism in the UK and the US, which is undeniable to anyone living in it, is so crucially dependent on the enslavement of perhaps a quarter of the world’s population that the ethical dilemmas are promptly hushed up; unquestioned and unknown. We’ve “never had it so good,” so why should we worry about the cost? 

The process of globalisation has fused the consumer markets of the west with the labour markets of the east to create a multi-trillion-dollar enterprise. The corner stone of which is exploitation of black and brown people in the sweatshops of the west and the east. Over the past 50 years globalising their supply chains to a point that this crime implicates everyone, no matter how conscientiously you shop, we live in a world where slavery, and exploitation has tarnished every material product on the high street. Slavery is not tolerated by the British consumer. This is what the Sunday Times article wants us to believe. We imagine ourselves as having left these practices behind in the 19th century. However, the outrage we feel at the horrendous conditions we subject Boohoo workers to, to afford the insatiable growth we demand back in the UK only stretches as far as far as our shores. In reality, if these practices are on the other side of the world then it is a sad fact of life and we must move on.  

As we have seen, it is in the nature of free market capitalism to push the limits of liberal employment legislation to the point where slavery is permitted. Our socio-economic system is failing to discourage practices that have been ostensibly outlawed since the 19th century. We are currently in a situation so bleak that bringing working conditions in line with the bare minimum required by law would feel like a victory. This is simply not enough. Workers must be fairly materially recompensed for their labour and freed from the tyranny of corporate totalitarianism. 

Today supply chains and capital is international, completely borderless and coordinated on a scale and at speeds not even comprehensible a decade ago. Yet social and labour movements are stolidly and, in some cases, violently national. To combat this international criminal operation, it takes an equivalent international movement of solidarity to operate across borders and fight the immovable object of globalised free market capitalism with the unstoppable force of worker solidarity. We in the west, with the greatest resources available and freedom to share our views, which until now have made us the most banal and complacent of accessories to contemporary slavery, demand fundamental real structural change. To bring democracy into our working lives, to pay workers not the bare minimum legally obligated, but enough for them to prosper and flourish and finally rid the world of the scourge of slavery.

By George Sullivan

History and History of Art student Uni of Nottingham // Nottingham Labour Students Co Chair //

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