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What would Wilberforce say?

Written By: - Date published: 3:51 pm, February 21st, 2012 - 33 comments
Categories: uncategorized, workers' rights - Tags:

Consciences are uncomfortable things and mine’s been giving me a bit of trouble lately.   I’ve been on the horns of a dilemma (sorry for the cliche but who can resist the imagery?) about employment practices.

We allow ourselves a handwringing moment, a short burst of outraged righteousness and then run off to buy  a pair of jeans for $35 or an entire dinner set for $15.  Do any of us truly believe goods made on the other side of the world – or any where else for that matter -can really be this cheap? We can no longer avoid – well I certainly can’t –  that most inconvenient of truths; that the dark flip-side of retail therapy is slavery by any other name.  The appalling working conditions in some Asian factories are being exposed by unions and human rights groups and there’s really no other word for it; 18 hour working days, 7 days a week with no rights and no protection. What else can we call it?

As world wide consumers we have huge, albeit unleashed, power.  It’s time for a campaign.

We could do with the Asian-worker-plight version of Sue Kedgley in a pig crate.  Perhaps Labour and Green MPs who have teenage and young adult children could coerce them to participate in a week long reality show which mirrors the exact working conditions in an Asian factory which supplies, say, the Warehouse. We must remember to provide nets for the jumpers.

When I was a kid my mother was forever reminding us that Wilberforce freed the slaves.  Turns out our mindless retail greed has enslaved another generation of them.


33 comments on “What would Wilberforce say?”

  1. Before we think Slavery is that far away – the US is looking at our shipping fleets.

    [United Fisheries CEO] Kotzikas said that while the national labour laws are “a thousand pages of, you know, beautiful stuff,” he believed that they did not necessarily apply beyond New Zealand’s 12-mile territorial radius.

    We may need to be boycotting our own fishing companies to start with.

    But love the program idea – hope someone picks it up!

    • mik e 1.1

      The Dairy Farming industry needs a close look at as their practices are similar to the fishing industry!

  2. Blue 2

    What would Wilberforce say? – he would say “Jenny you have no idea what slavery is, so stop being hysterical”

    [lprent: Remember the policies about personally attacking authors. If you can’t do argue about the contents of the post, then you don’t need to be here. Banned for 3 months because your last ban was for the same thing and I usually just double it up. ]

    • Jenny Michie 2.1

      I am going out on a limb here and guessing you’re a male. Actually I’m feeling perfectly calm Blue so let’s stick to the facts.What would you call those working conditions?

      • Blue 2.1.1

        Slavery is when a person is owned and doesn’t get paid, and is abhorrent. To use it to try and explain a poorly constructed argument is equally abhorrent. Also please save the “I’m guessing you’re a male” bullshit. What the hell has that got to do with it? Unless your anti-male? When people get hysterical I call it as I see it, its not because your a woman, or a man, or black, brown, white, or bloody blue. Its not because of your religion or your sexual orientation. Its because your being bloody hysterical and just a little bit precious.

        • mik e

          Blue a lot of these people don’t get paid or their pay is cut short i.e. Foxxcon only paying $2.00 a day for 13 to 16 hrs ,just like what’s happening to dairy farm workers who are only paid for 9 hrs a day but are forced to work up to 16 17 hrs a day the other 7 to 8 hrs they receive no pay slavery. bonded labour!
          Fishing workers getting no pay at all.Under Nationals regime of little or no workers rights.

        • mik e

          Bonded labour is another type of slavery that the right wing just love to bits otherwise we would have idiots like you defending such an abhorrent practice.
          Its the same as when as a finance company says in its prospectus guarantees a rate of return but looses all your money fraud by deception !

  3. crite40 3

    Well! “Soapy Sam”, )so called becuase he was always
    wringing his hands as though washing them) wouldn’t have turned a hair of his wig!
    He was as you say very much against negro slavery,
    but, this concern did NOT apply to anyone actually employed. If you don’t believe me look up his words on the employment of “climbing boys” to clean chimneys. They had a horrible job with a short life expectancy and yet, in theory, they were not slaves.
    Therefore Wilberforce refused to outlaw their use.

    Basically he was a conservative with a “bee in his bonnet” about slavery. This may have been due to
    economic as much as moral factors.

    • Te Reo Putake 3.1

      Um, think you’re barking up the wrong tree here, crite. His prime motivation was his dislike of exploitation, which crystallized in a conversion to Christianity, not any commercial motive. And he was actually a founder of the movement that eventually ended the practice of sending 5 year olds up chimneys, rather than an opponent.

  4. Ianupnorth 4

    Interesting thoughts Jenny; if I were to aspire to get rich quick I could buy all manner of trash from the Far East and on-sell for a quick buck (indeed I have done when I bought three USB bluetooth gizmo’s and sold one for a $5 profit on Trade Me). The problem doesn’t quite finish at the point of production; those who mine the ore, farm the cotton for T-shirts, etc, are all equally in that food chain.
    The issue is two fold – globalisation, the purchasing off all stuff off shore because it can be produced more cheaply, and, the brand lifestyle, where brands coerce us to aspire to their lifestyles (as I look at my Nike trainers, wear my Hilfiger glasses, etc).
    Yes we could go to a ‘buy Kiwi only’ model, but who could afford it and when would we get factories to produce shoes, clothes, let alone all the techno gizmo’s we are slaves to.

  5. vto 5

    It was best put by someone on here who recently opined that … slavery is in fact more expensive than employment because otherwise the employer would have to pay the full amount of keeping the man.

    • Mike 5.1

      Yep, that’s why a very smart slave owner, back in the day thought at length about the problem (cost of owning slaves.) If you owned slaves, you had to pay for their food and housing, as well as their medical bills if you wanted your investment to remain productive, etc,etc

      The smart slave owner came up with a genius solution. He decided to tell his slaves they were free. He then paid them a small wage, which he taxed. He rented their house back to them recovering some of the wage costs. The ‘former slaves’ had to pay for their own food and medical care. He saved a fortune, and the best thing was that the ‘former slaves’ became more productive due to the fact they actually believed they were free, thus had higher morale and motivation to work hard.

      His system was copied throughout the world of slavers. That brings us to the present day and the ‘former slaves’ now known behind closed doors as wage slaves.

  6. Nick C 6

    Im glad you have considered the problem, but this is hardly a solution. Stop the spending and the jobs go. If the jobs go then at best the people in these countries go back to a nasty, brutish agrarian society. At worst they all starve to death.

    The only solution guarenteed to produce tangible gains on a large scale: Open immigration to the first world. Obviously the immigrants will be poor relative to the average first world citizen, but still worlds apart from the conditions you describe.

    • Uturn 6.1

      Stop the spending and the jobs shift. We still need to eat and manual labour would be the only alternative to lack of machinery. But property rights will need to change to support that. A domino effect that would have you in a cold sweat.

    • Bill 6.2

      This might well be first time I’ve agreed with you Nick C. Freedom of movement of people across borders smacks apart the ‘containment cell’ strategy of Globalisation that presently allows them to play one domestic work force off another in a race to the bottom (ie, wages, benefits, safeguards and provisions).

      It’s a good idea. A very old idea. And (until now?) a very ‘left’ idea.

      Also agree, though for different reasons, that the ‘consumer’ argument doesn’t stack up.

      • djp 6.2.1

        I support freedom of movement across borders. The main barrier to this I would guess is state provided services (social wellfare, social heathcare, state education etc) they would collapse pretty fast under an open border situation

        • Bill

          No, state provided services wouldn’t collapse. Globalisation would collapse. And with the dynamics of globalisation gone, there would be no need for people to cross borders in search of a decent livelihood. (There would be no ‘low wage’ economies.)

    • mik e 6.3

      Nick caveman such an irrelevant example and on top of that you use the repuplicking parties elephant have you seen their border control policy recently I think not.Bonded labour has always been abhorrent, multinationals are to blame they are usurping the gains the developed world has made because they answer to no one and you and your cohorts are directly responsible for this state of affairs.
      Chinese labour is not free market it is run under a totalitarian dictatorship.

      • Bill 6.3.1

        Mike e. For the most part, Chinese labour is at the beck and call of corporate dictatorships. When the Chinese government suggested it was going to increase min wages and conditions, those corporates ( y’know, the ones that sell us our favorite household brands…the ‘good’ guys) said they’d ‘up sticks’ and relocate in other countries that had wages and conditions at levels less than those proposed by the Chinese government. So the reforms were duly dropped like ‘hot potatoes’.

        In some respects China is a ‘free’ market…corporations are more or less free to have things as they wish. Politically, China is controlled by a single party state. These are two quite different beasts (the politics and the economics) and it’s best not to confuse or confound them.

  7. Uturn 7

    We are all parasites; the more we consume the greater the parasite.

    There are two options once you realise this: ignore it via justifications, or voluntarily reduce your consumption. Being aware is the first step. No matter what you do, without major national culture change, the end can only be delayed. But that isn’t so bad – the Boomers are feathering their coffins right now.

    Re, reality show of sweat-shop conditions – BBC has beat you to it. It aired here a few years ago. Based around young fashion career hopefuls spending a month in the Indian cloth-making/sewing factory reality. Lots of tears and not quite believing they were comfortable entitled conceited rich kids when it was exposed to them. They went home. The Indian families were at home.

    Profit, over-consumption, waste, conceit, ignorance = basis for New Zealand collective psyche. People come here to escape the hell of the rest of the world, not fix it.

    Long term solutions to this fact are everyday dismissed on this website. So why not say it again. Real solutions could be implemented, but it would mean the end of new cars – two or four per family – fashion and general retail chains; countrysides covered in grass and sheep; fast internet connections; property speculation; climbing the corporate ladder… shit, why go on, that alone is completely unpalatable to 99% of the population – even the 99% who protest our 1percenter system. The economic policies and attitudes of our politics, especially, but not limited to the Right, are simply greed based unsustainable pipe dreams.

    It’s amusing, in a sad way, that the social disintergration happening in Greece now is still not as bad as parts of the USA, such as Detroit and other industrial towns, but Detroit stopped making the headlines decades ago. The only difference is that the people starving were black, so no one really cared. If that kind of social devolution comes here, it will be quite common to watch the thrashings of the dying middle classes as they fail to comprehend how they aren’t going anywhere but down. They were owed. They believed. They were better than the already poor. There should be a hierachy of who goes first. They should starve last. It meant nothing in the end. Ironic that those so fond of making plans for success, will make none for failure.

    Reduce consumption voluntarily. We are born to live our lives, not prop up pathological economic systems.

    • one of the most idyllic life/fun balance cultures/periods.i have come across/read about..

      ..was northern new south wales before the rise of cattle/sheep farming..

      ..the reason was that growing potatoes/root-vegetables was the main economic activity..

      ..and with spuds..there are two periods of activity..planting..and harvesting..

      ..and for those periods the farmers worked co-operatively..farm by farm..

      ..and the rest of the time/year was party/relaxation time..

      ..and a culture grew up of days/week-long gatherings at each others’ houses/properties..

      ..and built around group games/picnics/parties etc…

      …then the animal-slavery industry started..

      ..and it was bye bye to all that…

      ..they then became wage-slaves/bosses..and that idyllic togetherness/socialising ended..

      ..i’ve always thought that was a model to work towards..

      ..which we will be able to do actually..

      ..’cos a combination of ‘pure/clean’ lab-grown meat/flesh grown locally on industrial scales..worldwide..

      ..and the clearer defining of the health implications/outcomes from consuming animal flesh/fat/blood will see to that…

      ..our current exporting bits of animals industries are sunset-industries..

      ..how can they not be…?

      ..then our farmers can start growing food..



  8. djp 8

    So suppose the first world stops importing goods from the third world… what do you think will happen to those factory workers?

    I have no doubt the conditions are bad relative to what we enjoy but what makes it slavery?

    • Bill 8.1

      Don’t you mean what would happen if western corporations stopped using cheap labour economies as cheap ‘assembly line cogs’ in their production processes; ie places to send pre-made parts and materials to be assembled?

      As for slavery, well how about what’s been cut and pasted below? (And if you don’t want to call it slavery, then fine, call it by whatever name you want.) Regardless of the label given, is in in any way acceptable?

      (T)he payment to workers is below the value of labor power (the costs of reproduction of the worker). [ meaning you will die if you work there long term. my insertion for clarification] The KYE factory in China produces manufactured goods for Microsoft and other U.S. factories, employing up to 1,000 “work-study” students 16–17 years of age, with a typical shift running from 7:45 A.M. to 10:55 P.M. (…) The factories are extremely crowded; one workshop, 105 feet by 105 feet, has almost 1,000 toiling workers. They are paid 65 cents an hour, with 52 cents an hour take-home pay, after the cost of abysmal factory food is deducted. Fourteen workers share each dorm room, sleeping on narrow bunk beds. They “shower” by fetching hot water in a small plastic bucket for a sponge bath.38

      (…) Chatting with other workers during work hours can result in the loss of a day and half’s pay.

      Meitai workers are locked in the factory compound four days of each week and are not allowed to take a walk. The food consists of a thin, watery rice gruel in the morning, while on Fridays they are given a chicken leg and foot as a special treat. Dorm rooms are similar to the KYE factory with bunks lined along the walls and small plastic buckets to haul hot water up several flights of stairs for a sponge bath. They do mandatory unpaid overtime cleaning of the factory and the dorm. If a worker steps on the grass on the way to the dorm she is fined. Workers are regularly cheated out of 14 to 19 percent of the wages due to them. The workers are told that “economizing on capital…is the most basic requirement of factory enterprise.


    • mik e 8.2

      djp maybe if its so acceptable to you why not go to china and see if you could last even 1 day in a sweat shop, I think not.
      I’ve seen sweat shop conditions in New Zealand and I don’t think you’d last a day in an NZ sweat sop let alone in Asia!

  9. Bill 9

    If people could migrate freely across borders, the manufacturing sectors in many countries could develop fully (rather than being comprised of ‘assembly line factories’ for foreign corporations); pay decent wages (without fear of overseas corporations shutting down plants and shifting to a new low wage economy), and in effect have a manufacturing sector that catered (at least principly) for the domestic population.

    There would be no ‘mass migration’ swamping any particular country’s social resources if such freedom came to pass. Why? Because people would be paid ‘proper’ wages (ie, enough to participate in their economy). The Globalisation game would be dead as there would be no opportunity for corporations to play one captive labour market off against another.

    • Wayne 9.1

      Agreed. Once economic conditions improve in poor countries people will not be all trying to get into rich countries. It is hardly ever about political freedoms (short of outright ethnic or religious pogroms), but simply economics which impels people to move to different lands.

      The way the global system is set up, if by fate you are born in a third world country you have to work 10 or 20 or 30 or even 50 times as long as what one person in an industrialised country has to do for the same things. That is in terms of the exchange of labour, the average Westerner can work for one hour, and on the global market place demand that a Third world person work 50 hours for his benefit and pleasure.

      Westerners go to China, India, all over the Third world, and can live lives of luxury, wine, song, and women. Why? Because of the unequal exchange of labour. And within Western countries themselves there is also the same situation. A cleaner has to work perhaps a couple of weeks to earn what a corporate lawyer makes in a day. So the situation is also unjust and unequal in Western countries, particularly the US.

      John Key works in an industry where wealth concentrates itself –the banking industry. So earns a fortune of 50 million dollars. But is his contribution, his ‘labour’ worth thousands times more than an office cleaner? Of course not! Did he invent something that could make peoples lives a lot easier, or even save lives. No. So this is where the system is rooted.

      It is serfdom. The true value of peoples labour is not recognised nor rewarded, but rather skimmed off by a tiny wealthy elite who understand how to ‘game’ the system.

      So the appalling conditions in Asia and Africa and other developing countries has nothing to do with the fact that these people are any worse as people than Westerners. It is simply the place they happen to find themselves in the economic pecking order, an order put in place and maintained by imperialism.

      Countries with per capita GDP 1/10th or 1/20th that of Western countries simply will not be able to pay their workers or have conditions similar to those of Western countries. Not because they have inferior ‘values’ or care less for the environment or are worse people, as some on this website often like to snootily point out. And it is certainly not because they lack ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ in the limited Western understanding of these terms.

      There is an alternative way of course. Go the way of Maoist China or North Korea or Cuba or Albania, and completely get out of the global capitalist system.

      But of course expect demonization, isolation, trade embargoes, military threats, subversion, and the resulting economic deprivation arising out of these actions (althought it should be said many of these socialist countries did extremely well in improving the material conditions of their people, even in the face of international hostility and pressure).

      Jenny Michie should perhaps concentrate more on the real structural and historical reasons for the conditions she mentions in her article, rather than just present it as a case of evil Third worlders, with Westerners guilty only of neglect or moral blindness. No it is more than that. The real underlying reason for these conditions is Western imperialism, both historically and now.

      • Jenny Michie 9.1.1

        Wayne I grasp the historical and economic realities of capitalism and globalisation. I’ve lived and worked in the labour movement for many, many years. There aren’t easy answers to any of this but I do know that workers taking collective action through strong unions has been the single most important factor in improving the lives of workers around the world through the past 100years or so.

        Unions are declining in the west and rising in the east. It’s hardly surprising. In the west we are falling for the conceit that individuals are all powerful, that its’s all about ME, that hard won conditions fell from the heavens like mana and are forever, and that the relationship between worker and employer is an equal one. And that, to come back to my post, the ability to buy cheap crap made by virtual slave labour is our right as consumers.

        As consumers we do have great power. Look at fair trade coffee. Why not demand that the goods we buy are produced ethically by union labour and in a way that doesn’t damage the environment?

        • Bill

          …the ability to buy cheap crap made by virtual slave labour is our right as consumers.

          It’s more a situation that too many of us have an inability to buy anything but cheap shit made by virtual slave labour. And sure, it’s not a bad thing when those with a high enough disposable income buy (say) products from unionised workplaces. But again, most of us simply cannot afford the luxury of that choice.

      • Bill 9.1.2

        There is an alternative way of course. Go the way of Maoist China or North Korea or Cuba or Albania, and completely get out of the global capitalist system

        Or, then again, a democratic economy as opposed to either a command economy or a market economy. And a genuinely democratic polity as opposed any form of governance that systematically ensures the privilege and empowerment of some elite or other through the disempowerment of ordinary people.

  10. those who say we can’t change because of the economic-implications..

    ..should remember these were also the arguments against ending human slavery in the western world..

    ..the british empire was built on/sustained by slavery..

    ..and at the peak of african slavery in america those slaves were actually the biggest single asset in the american economy..

    ..economic-armageddon would ensue if slavery was abolished ran the argument..


  11. you do know that 1phone 4’s feel slighty damp ‘cos of the workers’ tears…eh..?

    ..and i had an edgy shop assistant the other day tell me a badly made product was that way..

    ..”cos the children who made it have problems paying attention all the time.. for all the hours they work’..

    ..(all said straight/po-faced..as a matter-of-fact..)

    and a new slogan for apple is:..

    ‘shiny on the outside…and rotten to the core’..

    ..did you know that when steve jobs went back to apple..

    ..that he closed down the/any philanthropic-giving at/from apple..?

    ..they gave no more…

    ..’st steve’…eh..?


  12. Wayne 12

    “…free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.”


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  • Speech to Labour Party Congress 2020
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