Workers yesterday, slaves today?

papa3What’s behind the campaigns against “modern slavery”?

The immigrants, the unregistered workers, some sectors of rural workers, are all groups that have been neglected by traditional unions. The Church saw a gap there to regain presence among the working class and has set out to achieve it. The left often looks the other way.

By Marina Kabat GIHCO – CEICS

Published in El Aromo n° 86 Rumbo a la barbarie – Towards barbarism Sep./Oct. 2015

“Unfortunately, the growing scourge of the exploitation of man by man severely damages the communal life” (Pope Francis, 1/1/2015)

Argentinian and: communist? The Pope is worried about exploitation? Or did he only recently realize that the bulk of the population is exploited, and works for a wage that doesn’t cover more than a minimum part of the work it makes? None of that: the Church has been battling against the only form of work that it recognizes as a relation of exploitation, as His Holiness says: the “slave labor”.

The Pope’s message at the beginning of the year, explicitly dedicated to the topic, talked about the labor activity of immigrants, kids and the unregistered labor, as slave labor. A large bag, where the Pope also includes human trafficking with purposes of sexual exploitation and organs trafficking. All this modalities would be contemporary forms of slavery.

The issue has two sides. First of all, the ideological aspect. As long as only certain activities and labor modalities are said to be exploitative, the implication is that the rest are not. Therefore, if you are not an illegal immigrant working 14 hours in a basement, nobody is exploiting you and you should be grateful to Saint Cajetan for your job (or, if you are unemployed, ask him for a job).

But the issue also has a material side. In the late nineteenth century the Church tried to build its own unions. Even though they never had more than a very limited success, they allowed the Church to set foot in the labor movement. But, in general, the political transformations after de Second World War swept them away. For example, the State took care of many of the social assistance tasks that catholic workers circles used to do. In Argentina and other countries, the establishment of a single union per field dissolved the catholic groups (which was one of the first reasons of resentment from the Catholic Church towards Peron, whom otherwise it supported). Since then, the Church has had a low direct influence -lower than it used to have- in the union organization of the workers. It’s true that it always had an important relation with the labor movement (think about Poland or about a good deal of the Peronist unionism), but it has been inorganic, through ideological influence. In the last decades, however, it found a way to recover its organic insertion, without having to fight the unions already established.

The immigrants, the unregistered workers, some sectors of rural workers: they are all groups that the traditional unions have disregarded. The Church saw there a way to regain prominence. That’s why it is behind many of the most important immigrants groups in the world. This can be noticed in the important role the Church had in the mobilization of May 1st 2006 in EE.UU. It has set out to regroup those sectors of workers deemed as surplus labor by capital, that don’t find a permanent occupation or do so in low-productive activities, in labor conditions that barely permit their subsistence as garment workers or rural workers, among others. Thus, the Church relates with the organization “La Alameda” in Argentina or tries to gather the migrant rural workers employed in the Brazilian Amazon in forest work and in camps that produce coal. In any case, the Church talks about slave workers and presents a minimum program of demands.


The theoretical foundation of the religious campaign


A group of academics has had an enormous success, in the last decade, in imposing the notion of “modern slavery”1. According to different authors, modern slavery doesn’t require the element of property typical of the traditional slavery. The legal situation doesn’t matter either, that is, if the alleged slavery is a situation condoned or prohibited by the State. The most currently widespread conception of “modern slavery” is the one developed by Kevin Bales, the author of Disposable people: New slavery in the global economy.

From our perspective, the main problem with the concept of “modern slavery”, such as Bales presents it, is its dehistoricizing perspective, based on methodological individualism.  First, the notion emphasizes the individual and not the social classes. For example, it holds that, ultimately, slavery is a relation between two individuals. It claims that modern slavery is a “democratic” institution because anyone can be enslaved: modern slavery would offer “equal opportunities”, given that modern slaves come from all the races, colors and ethnics. We are all equal in the face of modern slave traders. This nonsense erases any element of class. That in certain passages Bales mentions the most vulnerable groups (the poor, the women, the migrants and the ethnic minorities) doesn’t repair the problem, since he nowhere mentions that what all those groups have in common is their belonging to the working class. Hardly a businesswoman will ever fall into human trafficking networks.

As long as slavery is defined as a relation between two individuals, it’s dehistoricized and decontextualized. This is consistent with phrases like “we humans have always had slaves”, or the near assimilation of the history of humanity with the history of slavery. This individualist and ahistorical approach can’t lead but to an analysis of psychological aspects of the problem and to questions such as: what’s in the human heart that leads to slavery? Or to claim as the central subject of study the psychology of the slaveholder. It seems as if slavery was the expression of essential and transhistorical features of human beings.

In the prologue to the 2012 edition of his best-seller, Bales acknowledges some of the criticisms he received, such as the ambiguous and general character of his definition of slavery. Several historians indicated him than under his definition of slavery different modes of production become all slave-trading ones. But for Bales those are historian’s purisms or academic criticisms to a nonacademic book. The problem is that this book more than nonacademic it’s nonscientific, since it limits itself to repeat news from the papers assuming them to be true: the paper says slave, Bales says slave, acratically repeating the sensationalism of the press. Furthermore, the book has been praised by the academic community, to the extent in which this work, whose author claims as his defense not knowing or being interested in anything about history and that his book is not academic, has become the bible for academics working with that theme. Today the notion of “modern slavery” is holly word and the voices that rise against it are marginal. In that little group are the African States, which complain about the banalization of the concept of slavery, and an organization of migrant domestic employees in Great Britain, that claims that the sensationalist reports of the press and its use of the term “slave”, don’t contribute to their cause: the union organization of the domestic employees and the unitary action of natives and immigrants2.

What is slavery for Bales?

 For Bales a slave is a person held through violence or the threat of violence, for purposes of economic exploitation. However, Bales doesn’t distinguish between economic violence and extra economic violence. This is a central difference, because capitalism is the only social system were the exploited class is so through economic coercion. Nobody points a gun at the workers to make them work, they do it because of economic necessity. This doesn’t mean that they are free: hunger is a coercion as hard and pressing as the worst whip. On the contrary, the slave or the medieval servants were under an extra economic coercion.

Trying to specify his imprecise definition, Bales adds that if we are not sure if a person is a slave we should ask ourselves if that person can leave. But, what does it mean that someone could or could not abandon a job? Bales considers slaves those who don’t abandon their job because they don’t have anywhere else to go, that is, for lacking a home of their own, for fear of deportation, intimidation, difficulties with language, geographic isolation, self-blame for their situation and, in the case of domestic employees, the desire of not losing contact with the children they raised. Bales also adds the case of the forestry workers in the Brazilian Amazon, that don’t leave the carbon camps because they fear that it would be hard to get another job, or they are waiting to be paid what they are owed. As we can see, in most cases workers don’t abandon their employers for economic reasons and not because of extra economic violence. But for Bales they would be slaves.

Regarding the other characteristics of the alleged slave labor, Bales emphasizes the hard work in exchange of a poor pay and the economic exploitation. Like in papal proclamations, it seems as if exploitation is external to the capitalist world, were high wages, short work days and plain freedom would reign. Conclusion: capitalism is good; the problem are the excesses of individuals, that who knows what they think and feel, and that enjoy submitting others. Bales insists on “modern” slaves as being dispensable and associates the growth of slavery with the demographic growth. In his words: with an increase in the offer of slaves.

Bales never considers the economic base of the situations he describes, and he explains each case through local factors. It seems that there are cultures more slave-holding than others (EEUU and Brazil among them). It doesn’t draw his attention that exactly the same economic branches are the ones with worst working conditions in the world (confection, agrarian labor, bricks manufacture). He doesn’t ask himself what all of them have in common. In this way, he avoids any structural explanation. For example, he explains that agrarian labor in United States is not regulated by labor laws because of local and temporary situations from the beginning of the twentieth century, seeming to ignore that in a big part of the world rural workers have been excluded from universal labor legislation (especially significant in this respect are the cases of Brazil, Mexico and Argentina).

With a tailored definition of “modern slavery”, Bales considers as slaves a large amount of workers even though they are not exposed to extra economic violence. There could be particular cases where the economic coercion was accompanied by forms of extra economic coercion. But such cases are exceptional, they are crimes and the worker can appeal to the State for defense. That’s why even in that particular case it’s not about slaves. Because a slave is not an isolated individual, a particular case, but a member of a social class that, as such, is deprived of freedom, which is supported by the State. Bales’ liberal individualistic approach prevents him from having a profound understanding of the social landscape.

From India to Peru: the indebted workers     

 An alternative vision is in the work of Tom Brass3. For Brass, in forced labor the worker is no longer hired by several employers and becomes a permanent employee of a single employer, sometimes for life. For Brass this represents a modern form of slavery that implies a process of deproletarization. Unlike classic slavery, there’s neither control nor property of the person, only of its work force. For Brass there’s deproletarization because the work force is demercantilized. The wage, instead of being understood as payment for work, is conceived as payment of a debt.

To maintain the forced nature of labor like the Peruvian attachment system or the Hindu debt-bondage, Brass emphasized the role of kinship in assuring the subjection of the worker. The analysis of kinship as a channel of oppression and exploitation is one of the merits of Brass. But he is wrong in considering this coercion as extra economic. The same examples that he gives lead us to the opposite conclusion: the threat of relatives cutting access to land, cereals, cattle, fodder or sources of water is a mechanism of economic coercion. Because there’s no use of extra economic violence but the threat of cutting access to economic resources.

Brass seems to ignore the difference between the alleged abstract rights that capitalism offers to workers and the effective possibility of using them. According to Brass, the free worker willingly steps in and out of the labor market, something that the bonded labourer can’t do. But, what worker can willingly choose to step in or out of the labor market? How long can a worker abstain from working? Neither workers choose the conditions in which they work, nor choose to enjoy leisure willingly abstaining from working when they are unemployed.

Brass himself recognizes that there are labor modalities where contracts for a long period of time are maid, sometimes with anticipated payments (researchers, movie stars, athletes, sailors). To maintain his argument, Brass is willing to argue that all of those cases are non-free relations. He’s wrong: anticipated sale of labor is still a sale. The work force doesn’t lose in that operation its condition of merchandise. At the most, the worker loses the cost of opportunity. But this is an intrinsic aspect of the anticipated sale of any merchandise by which the salesman assures the sale (against the eventuality of not being able to do it, which for the worker implies the possibility of dying of hunger), but loses the possibility of raising its price in the future if a more favorable market conjuncture occurs.

Unlike Bales, Brass doesn’t make claims that imply the supposition that low wages, at the level of subsistence or even less, are strange to the nature of capitalism. Clearly Brass expresses comprehension on this point. However, he does seem to share Bales’ liberal supposition about the worker’s absolute and effective freedom under capitalism to willingly step in and out of the labor market, since he bases his definition on non-free labor on the absence of that freedom.

We believe that the root of this confusion is in the lack of attention given to economic coercion. This economic coercion is what transforms the alleged workers freedoms into abstract pipe dreams. Workers under capitalism are not truly free, they can’t be. They don’t decide to step in or out of the labor market, they are compelled by their necessities. In certain countries, the relation of forces between classes after the Second World War have been more favorable to workers, allowing them to exercise that freedom –within certain limits– to a greater extent. But this hasn’t been the rule in the history of capitalism. That’s why many of the situations presented today as forms of “modern slavery”, especially migrant labor in clothing workshops or ways of recruiting rural workers, are extremely similar to the ones mentioned by Marx and Engels when they described the labor conditions of English workers in the nineteenth century.


The change in the relations of forces between classes and how to face it


The wage has a social component that is historically defined. Which are the necessities of the worker that have to be covered by the wage is something that changes according to the historical conditions, given in great extent by the relations of forces between the classes. The incorporation of large masses of workers to the labor market, some of rural origin and recent proletarization, is changing those relations of forces and altering the wage guidelines and the labor conditions hitherto considered normal. It is possible even that the complaint against “slave” labor is encouraged by unions that seek to preserve the sources of labor for their compatriots, and as an attempt to avoid that redefinition.

Certain sector of American or European progressivism hypocritically responds with a double face: on one hand, it denounces as “slave” labor the new work guidelines already established as normal in certain branches, and on the other, tries to stop the entry of migrants. These progressives seem lost when they have to discriminate the groups of migrant workers that they will consider “slaves”, and will help, from those who wouldn’t be slaves and would have to be deported to their countries of origin to die of hunger.

Today the working class suffers large modifications. The answer is neither corporatism nor nationalism. All forms of action that undermine the unity of the working class would debilitate it further, confronting factions against each other. A unitary policy is needed. But for that it is necessary that the left leads the organization of the workers’ fractions hitherto less organized, those that make up the surplus population for capital and that are employed only intermittently and in marginal activities with very low productivity. To a great extent, the success in this task will decide the great battles that the working class faces ahead.

It is imperative, therefore, the need to work in that direction: organize those fractions of workers abandoned by traditional unions. For this, we will have to face the Church, which is partly ahead of us, and battle against it both in political and union construction as well as in the ideological terrain.

1 We analyze here the two most important books by Bales: Bales, Kevin and Soodalter, R.: The slave next door, California, 2009; Bales, K.: Disposable people: New slavery in the global economy, Univ. of California Press, 2012.

2 Anderson, Bridget: “Migrant domestic workers and slavery”, in Genovese, Eugene: The political economy of slavery: Studies in the economy and society of the slave South, Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

3 Brass, Tom: Towards a comparative political economy of unfree labour. Case studies and debates, Frank Cass, London, Portland, OR, 1999.

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