I thought slavery had been abolished

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling ...

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, the British did not invent slavery. We certainly brought it back into fashion in the 1600s but slavery has existed in many different forms since before written records began. To be fair to us, we did our bit to bring it to an end too. Only slavery wasn’t eradicated at all and unfortunately anything up to 27 million people still exist in some sort of slavery today.

No reasonable person would agree that slavery is a good thing and yet still it exists and is widespread. No-one is openly condoning the practise, but there are shades of grey. Many people (like me) who condemn slavery will quite happily go into a shop and buy a smart phone or a tablet.

Allegations often crop up about the appalling working conditions in the factories that make such devices and yet Apple have sold 2 million of the new iPhone already. It’s not quite slavery by the purest definition of the word, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right.

We turn a blind eye because it happens such a long way away. There are many labour laws that prevent it but if it happened in Western countries, we would be up in arms. If we were subjected to the same conditions in our workplaces, then industrial relations would be at an all time low.

I don’t think that technology companies are the only ones at fault. I would imagine that working conditions are poor in factories producing almost everything that’s on sale in our shops today. For the most part automotive manufacturers have a pretty good record, but what about all the components that go into making a car?

Sometimes poor pay and conditions are justified by saying that conditions are poor everywhere else in that particular geography. Effectively, that is what the people who come from that region are used to, so it must be OK. I imagine the British Captains that picked up some African tradesmen and swapped them for tobacco and coffee thought something similar.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Western governments need to come up with a scheme whereby any goods on sale would need to display a rating which would indicate the conditions in which those goods were made. Many of the countries that contain such manufacturing centres are highly corrupt so the assessments would need to be impartially carried out. Such a scheme would cost a lot of money to implement and would almost certainly increase the cost of the goods themselves as working conditions in the factories are inevitably improved.

Somehow with the Euro crisis high on the agenda and the rising economic might of China, I suppose they have bigger fish to fry, but I hope we look back on the abolition of such working practises in the same way as we look on the abolition of the slave trade in the 1700s.


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