One of the frustrating things about studying contemporary slavery is that our consumption is so deeply connected to it. Even if one has an awareness of this connection, it is difficult to escape purchasing items that may have been made in part by slave labour. In this post, David Mayeda continues his series on contemporary slavery, recounting some of the stories he heard from abolitionists regarding the deplorable conditions enslaved workers experienced in Thailand.
Ever wondered how much you unintentionally support modern day slavery? You can test your estimated “slavery footprint” by clicking on the link, below:
I don’t purchase too many electronic gadgets anymore, but I did in the past. I suppose I have a fair number of clothes, virtually no bling, and little in the way of cosmetics. The thing is, I eat a lot, which probably drives my slavery footprint. Unfortunately, my consumption contributes to the enslavement of about 42 people per year, not something I am proud of.
The thing is, my personal connection to slavery is hardly unique. The type of slavery that receives the most media attention is commercial sexual exploitation, but actually, the largest number of people enslaved globally are forced to work in agriculture; this makes sense considering the global market existing for different food types. In Thailand, however, the largest number of enslaved workers are entrapped in the fishing and shrimping industries.
Truth be told, most fishing and shrimping companies in Thailand do not rely on slave labour, but some do. As noted in part 1 of this series, modern slavers in Thailand target two demographic populations that are both rendered extremely vulnerable by the state – rural hill tribe Thai and Burmese migrants.
The process typically begins with a broker who seduces poverty-stricken peoples with employment opportunities. However, deceived workers must first pay a brokerage fee of around $400USD. This immediately puts the worker in debt to the broker and begins a system of deceptive, violent entrapment known as debt bondage, now the most common form of slavery in the world.
After paying this fee, the worker and others like him/her are taken to an unfamiliar work place. This could be in any variety of industries – garment, agriculture, sex, fishing, construction (Anderson & Davidson, 2002). Once there, the brokerage fee is substantially increased and other conditions are established that make it impossible for the worker to escape debt. Technically, workers are paid a small wage, but wages go to paying for things like shelter, food, tools, and fines. What follows is a paraphrased account of the conditions thrust upon enslaved victims in a shrimp peeling company in the Bangkok area.
Through threats of violence, enslaved individuals were forced to start their workday at 2:00am, at which point they began peeling shrimp virtually non-stop until 8:00pm – 18 hours, standing the entire time, 7 days a week, no days off. If a shrimp fell to the floor, workers were fined. After working their shift, they went to their sleeping quarters in metal warehouse containers where “rooms” were separated by hanging rugs (a portion of their wages went to pay rent). For meals, they had to purchase food at the company store.
Anyone caught with a cell phone or attempting to communicate with others by any means was punished physically and fined. Expenses and fines were so prevalent that workers simply could not save money to alleviate their debt, let alone send money home to their families. Those who tried to escape were physically punished and reminded that brokers knew where their families lived and could also victimize them if workers tried to escape or notify authorities.
This particular company was raided by abolitionists and law enforcement only because an enslaved worker had escaped and run into an activist by chance. It took great effort for the abolitionist group to identify law enforcement personnel who was not bribed by slavers, further illustrating how embedded slavery is in the system (Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation, 2011).
Corrupt though things may be among slave-based organizations, we as consumers must also consider our complicity. Our privileged demand for cheap products drives worker exploitation in poorer countries. Whether it is the shrimp we eat from frozen bags or in sushi, the clothes we wear, the electronics we play, or the cars we drive, parts of all of these are made by slave labour more often than we would like to believe. To think we are not part of this highly complex and confusing social ill is to deny our responsibility.
A related video well worth watching:
Photos provided by author.
- What are some ways you can decrease your material consumption?
- Some people argue the best way to address slavery is to increase punishments placed upon slavers. What are the pros and cons of this approach?
- How might labour exploitation and the conditions covered in part 1 of this series influence other institutions, such as education, or the ecology in countries like Thailand?
- According to the slavery footprint site, how many slaves work for you each year? How does this make you feel?
Anderson, B., & Davidson, J. O. (2002). Trafficking – a demand led problem?: a multi-country pilot study. Stockholm: Save the Children Sweden.
Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation. (2011). Raiding Abusive Workplaces: Making a Strong Case on Trafficking and Forced Labour The Multidisciplinary Approach in Action. Bangkok: The Labour Rights Promotion Network.