Slavery Documentary

For those of you who may not have been in class last week when the documentary “Slavery: A Global Investigation” was shown, you may view it at your leisure here. While a little dated, this documentary won a Peabody Award in the US, the equivalent of an Oscar in journalism, and is a good introduction to the issue.


2 Responses to “Slavery Documentary”

  1. 1 wongkamyiu 10/10/2009 at 12:28 am


    This passage is not directly related to slavery, but it is an issue closely relevant to it. It is the misconception that : —“it may be acceptable for poor workers to work in unsafe and hazardous environment, since enforcing laws to ensure safe environment may drive them out of work and thus render them even poorer”

    The above issue came to my head towards the end of the documentary, where it tells a about a young boy working in the charcoal field. Although the young boy was not forced to work as a slave, he was working in an extremely dangerous environment, which would probably cause death threatening disease and he was paid very little money despite taking this risk. He himself submitted that he was working for the little bit of money that could help him survive the present, knowing that this work is shortening his life. On one hand, people would argue that the worker is paid and enforcing such laws would drive the cost of production to increase in developing countries, which would drive these companies out of business and essentially rendering this boy unemployed and his country to remain in poverty, as foreign investments would move to places with lower production costs.


    However, I am very skeptical of this view and I shall explain this using the example of our conception towards slavery, and I shall rephrase the above argument in the context of slavery as follow. —-“Enforcing laws to prevent slavery in developing countries has a great possibility of driving people out of their only available jobs. Due to this economic repercussion, one doubts whether it’s in the best interest of poor nations/ people to enforce anti-slavery laws.”

    At first sight, one may easily argue for enforcing anti-slavery laws in the view that slavery involves people who are forced to work through violence and are not paid anything beyond subsistence, and no country/ industry should ever be allowed to earn money in such a way that seriously violate human rights. If we apply this logic, we would say that this is just another form of violation of human rights, the boy is “forced” to work not by violence but by poverty, in environments that is clearly not suitable for people to work in. We would say that in this case, we are not treating this young man as anymore human as we are treating slaves and therefore, there should be no second thoughts in banning this type of factories, as no reason would ever justify this method of generating wealth money.


    The strange thing is that many people don’t seem to think that workers working under dangerous environments with low wages and forced by poverty as a problem concerning the violation of human rights that needs to be attended to. There are some bans imposed such as child labors and sweat factories, but we are still seeing a lot of people working under these situations. My view is that it is very dangerous for citizens of rich countries to justify this growing problem with the misconception #2 they hold. If we start to think that allowing people to work in these environments is for their good, we will never be able to protect these people. Yes, if we just ban all factories that are not up to safety standards, it will inevitably drive people out of their jobs and weakening the comparative advantage of poor nations over rich nations in terms of production cost. But this is only true if everything remains unchanged and rich nations and its citizens do nothing after imposing these bans. But there is a lot we could do and I shall explain generally how we could work this out.

    First of all, it would be unreasonable and not feasible to put all the responsibility on developing countries to be enforcing laws to ensure a safe working environment for workers. As mentioned above, these countries don’t have the incentive and resources to enforce these rules, in doing so they would lose their comparative edge and it this would mean hindering their development and thus never be able to bring their country out of poverty.

    Therefore, the responsibility to bear the extra cost must rest on the multinational companies and individual consumers in rich countries. However, at the end of the day, both companies and consumers alike look for a better bargain. That means, if they had a choice between i) greater cost, more humanity protection and ii) less cost, less humanity protection, the majority will ultimately be driven towards option (ii). This is because at the end of the day, companies and consumers look after their survival first, for example, if a company makes a decision to bear the cost, it would risk losing to its competitors, and would simply have to give up. ( In fact this is a similar problem with fair trade products, because at the end of the day, consumers would look for a better bargain in monetary terms only.) Therefore, in order to have companies taking up this responsibilty, the law must FORCE all company to take up this responsibility. There should be stricter laws for multinational companies to make sure that their production line is anti-slavery and provides a safe environment for all its workers. Production cost would still increase, but now it increases for all companies and that means no one is at a disadvantage if they choose to respect these rights while others do not. How this increase in production cost is shared between the company and the consumers can be sorted out by the market and in that way, we could achieve the purpose of having companies and consumers both share the responsibility of enforcing these protective laws. It is a big step, but that is the right thing to do if we really respect human rights and want to address the problem of poverty.

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