Exploitation is nothing new
Saturday, Jul 05, 2014 06:00 am
Exploitation – it is a sad reality of the human condition. Not unlike war, famine, or disease, it is something that has always afflicted mankind. People have always used others to advance their own economic and social wellbeing.
Though something we have considered to be of the past, our modern news still reports incidents of slavery, human trafficking, and economic human rights abuses in far off lands. The news of Boko Haram in Nigeria is more of a norm rather than a rarity. We do not hear of similar abuses elsewhere, in such places as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, mostly because we do not want to know.
Though we may be repulsed by the news we hear from far off lands, we implicitly support exploitation here. Maybe our adverse reactions are that subliminal understanding that we are part of the problem. Our consuming society could not flourish if others were not used to produce those inexpensive goods we purchase. Even after the images of dead factory workers, people locked into death-trap work environments, making cheap clothing for the West, we quickly return to our old consuming patterns, and so the problem persists.
Maybe this is why we struggle to recognize exploitation within our own society, because we have become inured to it. Some of the abuses of the Foreign Worker Program have sparked our ire, but for the most part we do not see exploitation in our own work places. Unpaid hours and dangerous working conditions are just two examples that the Alberta government has acknowledged through a recent advertising campaign, but it belies the idea that our Labour Standards and Codes of Practices are working here; there is a laxity of government presence in our labour market, and when it does appear, most workers will eschew it as they want to protect their jobs.
As John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” And so, the Calvinist work ethic is still strong within our society, though it is mostly a secular one; we see ourselves as moral and upright Canadians because we equate our labour, our hard work, as a sign of our virtue. We accept our condition as a form of choice, that underlying liberal ideal of choice, freely entering servitude, as we aspire to move up in the world through the consumption of goods, the new hallmark of our rectitude. Yet, we ignore the fact that we are all just working to survive, our decision little more than Hobson’s choice, as we really have little option but to sell ourselves to live. And thus we accept and perpetuate this mistreatment of others, and ourselves, as we see it as all relative. It is not that bad here in Canada, and so we see exploitation as a valued part of our economy.
John Kennair is an international consultant and doctor of laws who lives in St. Albert.