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Is Modern Slavery Acceptable?

March 14, 2011

A recent news story from CNN depicts the on-going “state of slavery” currently occurring in India. Laborers of various ages (including children as young as five years old) from villages across the continent are being taken to a remote location in India where they are responsible for working off their own debt or part of their family’s debt. The laborers are bonded to their supervisor who granted them the loans for food, medical treatment, or other means of survival.  The news story describes these workers as “India’s modern slaves.”  “I cannot leave here unless I pay my debt,” was a direct quote from one female laborer. These individuals, who certainly are not being treated as individuals, receive no wages for their strenuous work of daily brick-making. They don’t know how long they will be forced to work on the land, and there is no hope for escaping, as that will only result in abusive punishment.  Their supervisor deems this practice legal and sees nothing wrong with his treatment of the workers as slaves since he believes he owns them.

After watching this news story, I immediately thought of Locke’s social contract and his views on individual freedom and basic human rights. I contemplated his rationale on the legality of this situation in India.

Locke believes in an individual’s right to natural liberty and the ideals of “life, liberty, and property.” According to Locke, it is impossible for one to enlist into slavery voluntarily since everyone has the right to freedom. However, a state of slavery is acceptable if it is an extension of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive.   One could argue, therefore, that in this situation pertaining to India, the supervisor can be seen as the “conqueror” and the laborers the “captives.” Would that then make this form of indentured servitude acceptable? An informal agreement does exist between the supervisor and the laborers, who are responsible for paying off debts, so this practice of indentured servitude might seem legal to some.

I would assume the current treatment of the laborers is not what Locke had in mind for what constitutes acceptable terms of slavery. The situation in India is extreme. It is not an extension to a state of war. The workers are made no promise of ever receiving freedom and are even threatened with violent punishment.  They are being denied a basic human right – ownership over their own bodies, which is something every individual is automatically entitled to in Lockean theory.

I also thought this news story can be related to the issue of “Dirty Hands.”  Should the supervisor of these laborers be concerned that he may be “charged” with having “Dirty Hands?”

Link to CNN News Story, “Entire Indian Villages enslaved by debt”

  1. alexqhe permalink
    March 14, 2011 8:36 PM

    I’m not sure if Walzer’s concept of dirty hands applies in this situation, exactly. I believe that Walzer’s piece was debating whether or not politicians should or shouldn’t “violate the deepest constraints of morality in order to achieve great goods or avoid disasters for their communities.” While the ongoing situation you refer to of contractors turning India’s poor into indentured servants and bonded laborers is indeed reprehensible, I don’t think that what these contractors are doing applies much to Walzer’s thesis of dirty hands.

    It’s interesting how CNN spinned the story, though. The reporter and the subsequent voiceover seems to portray the entire system in a bad light, but I wonder what a lot of these people would be doing if they were allowed to leave. It pays to know the entire situation before passing judgment, and that’s just something that can’t be done considering the immense amount of bias apparent in the video.

  2. jdeclaire permalink
    March 15, 2011 6:23 PM

    Now I do not know the entire story, but I am not exactly sure if these people can be considered “slaves.” Slavery can be defined as working under harsh conditions for no pay or reward. While these conditions are unnecessarily harsh, the people are being punished for essentially breaking a law. Conceptually, this is not much different from our prison system. When someone is convicted of breaking a law, they are sent to prison or some sort of other punishment. Obviously, these punishments do not fit the crime and are very immoral, but it does mean they are slaves.

    With that being said, this seems to be a terrible system, especially with the children. In the video, a three-year old girl was doing labor. It is terrible to think that someone so young and vulnerable is being forced and punished to work in horrible conditions. Most people in our country do not work until high school or college, let alone do labor in a field. In addition, one woman was in debt because she borrowed money to treat her husband’s tuberculosis. She may owe money, but there is no reason to punish someone like this for something of that nature. As for Locke’s point of view, I do not think that he would accept this as being a situation between a lawful conqueror and a captive. By no means, does this form of punishment appear as lawful. The people never entered into a state of war, either. Ultimately, slavery may not be the right word for what is going on, but regardless, this is sad truth that should be immediately changed.

  3. Brian Fisher permalink
    March 16, 2011 4:36 PM

    I would immediately consider the state of nature that these individuals are forced to live under as “slave-like conditions”. The fact that these people are forced to work for a deemed supervisor, with inadequate pay, significantly adheres to a life of slavery. Furthermore, while some may argue the similarities of this system to a convict’s life in prison, one must comprehend that some of these individuals are re-paying the debts of family. No prisoner in recent American society has ever been sent to jail for an offense committed by a family member. When we compare the situation in India to America’s inhumane treatment of African slaves, we can immediately correlate both systems as similarly producing individuals into a life of slavery. There is no doubt in my mind that these individuals are experiencing a life of slavery.

  4. Christina Beckman permalink
    March 16, 2011 9:43 PM

    I agree with you: this is modern-day slavery and shouldn’t be tolerated. These people are working to pay back a debt, which is essentially what happened in America just the same. However, I urge you to think of this in Rousseau’s perspective as well. It gets you to thinking: would Rousseau actually consider this slavery?

    According to Rousseau’s social contract, “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” as was said in lecture. Who cares about me, what I want? It’s all about the team, right? If these people thought they were working together towards a common good, what’s wrong with that? In their mind, it might be fot the betterment of their community, or for their families, etc. Also, an important point to make here, Rousseau considers freedom something earned, or gained; you’re not simply given freedom- but become free, which helps you to appreciate it that much more.

    I’m not saying that I agree with what’s going on in India- I don’t. However, if you look at it from a different perspective, it sheds a whole new light on what it truly means to be free. Just something to think about..

  5. March 17, 2011 6:29 PM

    Christina’s comment is excellent because she brings in Rousseau who has different philosophy regarding property and our natural rights. We all agree that this is wrong. However, I disagree with how Rousseau would view this example of modern day slavery as he think he too would view this as wrong. It is unfortunate that these slaves think they are paying back a debt because in reality, they are receiving no wages, and they are being forced to work for an indefinite time period. The slaves may not voluntarily give their rights and become slaves as Rousseau states, but they have been coaxed into thinking that this is how they must pay “a debt.” I believe Rousseau would view this case as an extension of the bad social contract he delineates in part II of the Origins of Inequality. The bad social contract was formed from deception as the slave owner has deceived his slaves. Everyone has natural rights and that is why this is incorrect. Furthermore, I believe Rousseau’s vision of working together for a common good falls more on the lines of his concept of the General Will. The General Will is accomplished in a democratic system and this is case is not remotely related.

  6. alexqhe permalink
    March 17, 2011 11:58 PM

    To elaborate on my previous point, I thought an excerpt that I found my Economics textbook would help illustrate what I was trying to say:

    Re: child labor

    “As preparations began in France for the 1998 World Cup, there were protests that Baden Sports – the main supplier of socer balls – was purchasing the balls from suppliers in Pakistan that used child workers. France decided to ban all use of soccer balls made by child workers. Bowing to this pressure, Baden Sports moved production from Pakistan, where the balls were hand-stitched by child workers, to China, where the balls were machine-stiched by adult workers in factories…

    In fact, the alternatives to soccer ball stitching for child workers in Pakistan turned out to be extremely grim. According to Keith Maskus, an economist at the University of Colorado and the World Bank, a large proportion of the children who lost their jobs stitching soccer balls ended up begging or in prostitution.”

    I’m not saying that what’s going on in the above CNN article definitively relates back to the point the above excerpt was trying to make, but I would hardly be so quick to condemn the entire system based off of a heavily slanted news report. I’m sure Locke wouldn’t castigate the system in such a manner without more information, let alone Hobbes. I wouldn’t even say that this is a violation of Rousseau’s example of the bad social contract, as these people may just have a debt to pay after all — ignorance of their obligations does not necessarily signify that they don’t owe a debt. One of the women in the video even clearly confirmed that she borrowed money from the company — if she didn’t understand the original terms of the agreement, than there is no one to blame but herself for not ascertaining what was required of her in terms of payback.

    So I suppose that yes – in contrast to dtumm’s assertion above that “we all agree that this is wrong” – at the very least, I’m not so sure if this could even be considered slavery.

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