Arguing the toss: spiked style

This week: was director Steve McQueen right to claim there are 21million people in slavery today?

It’s brilliant news that 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture, isn’t it?

It’s certainly a very good film and brilliantly acted. I came out of the cinema a bit stunned.

Absolutely. And I thought it was great that the director, Steve McQueen, said in his acceptance speech that it’s not just a historical thing either. He dedicated his win to the 21million people in slavery today.

Er, 21million people are in slavery?

Yes. That’s what he said.

But is it true?

Well, I’m sure he looked into it.

It sounds to me like one of those classic cases where lots of people get lumped into a nasty-sounding category, but in reality, most of the people are not in the nastiest version of it.

What do you mean?

Well, first of all, what is slavery?

It’s when you’re forced to work in exploitative conditions, subjected to physical violence, and unable to escape until you die or you’re so broken they let you go.

So, like me, you think slavery is the kind of thing depicted in 12 Years A Slave, right?

Yes. And I think it is shocking that people are still forced to live like that 150 years after it was abolished in America.

It certainly would be shocking, if it were true. But I think that McQueen got that number from a report by the International Labour Organisation from 2012. And slavery as we both understand it is not what the ILO is talking about.

Slavery is slavery, right?

The ILO report is an estimate of ‘forced labour’ and that includes a lot of things which, while unpleasant, are a long way from what Erving Goffman would call a ‘total institution’ like slavery in the Deep South.

Such as?

Well, the ILO report covers slavery and practices that are ‘like slavery’, but also includes debt bondage - being forced to work to settle a debt - and serfdom. Unfortunately, in some undeveloped parts of the world, serfdom is still practised, it seems. But the ILO also includes trafficking of people for exploitation, perhaps after being duped. So they turn up in another country expecting a proper job - or an arranged marriage - and get a low-paid, menial job with little freedom. They may have their papers stolen or get threatened with being reported to the authorities. Or they may be doing sex work. It’s not clear from the ILO report if the ILO considers sex work as exploitative by definition or not.

Still sounds bad to me.

It is, but a lot of this is not slavery the way I would understand it. For example, being forced to work under threat of being reported to the authorities is a threat really created by immigration laws. The only people keeping illegal immigrants in chains are the authorities, not the ‘slave masters’. People then have a choice: work in bad conditions in one country, or be deported back home. Do you think a slave in the Deep South would have thought twice about that? They’d be off like a shot. Sometimes, forced labour is a choice between bad and worse. As for sex workers, many choose to do that work; the notion of trafficking is massively exaggerated. Time and again, when people have looked into this properly, few people if any are moved from one country to another and forced to do sex work.

Moreover, the ILO notes that these situations tend to be temporary. The average period of forced labour was two-and-a-half years. That’s pretty bad, but it’s nothing like the common notion of slavery. After all, in the film, Solomon Northup is lucky that he is in fact legally a free man before he is kidnapped. He manages to escape after a ‘mere’ 12 years. Most Southern slaves could expect to die in chains.

But what’s wrong with raising it as an issue?

Well, it suggests that we could do something about it. But the majority of forced labour takes place in underdeveloped parts of Asia. The answer is development, not handwringing in Los Angeles. And in that respect, there are many millions more who are enslaved to something else: nature. Is the hand-to-mouth existence of the subsistence farmer really much better than that of the forced labourer? I doubt it.

The other big problem is that the notion of slavery has been so denuded of content that anybody can call themselves a ‘slave’ today. There was the case last year in London of the ‘slave house’ which turned out to be a very odd commune rather than a site of bondage. Even interns, doing unpaid work experience, have started complaining that they are ‘slaves’. Pretending that every instance of poor working or living conditions is ‘slavery’ just robs the idea of any meaning.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.


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