Theresa May Attacks Slavery, but Happy with Other Forms Exploitation

Mike over at Vox Political has put up an article commenting on the hypocrisy behind Theresa May launching her anti-slavery campaign.

Slavery is indeed a terrible crime against humanity, and down the centuries slaves have been treated with more or less appalling brutality. But Mike points out that there are also exploitative employers, who force wages down and torture their workers psychologically. He has seen it, and wonders if his readers also have. But this, apparently, is perfectly fine with May.

As is student debt, which according to a report released today by the Intergenerational Foundation will wipe out any ‘graduate premiums for most professions’. In other words, getting a degree will keep you poor, and won’t do you any good. But May still keeps telling us that higher education leads to greater employability and pay.

He then discusses how the National Living Wage is no such thing, and you can’t survive on benefits, because the benefits system is biased against giving them out.

All fine by May. As is the form of slavery embodied in workfare. The government has spent four years trying to keep the names of the firms and charities involved in this absolutely secret, because they were well aware that the British public wouldn’t stand it. But that form of exploitation is fine by May.

Mike states that he fully believes slavery should be wiped out in Britain, but states that May’s campaign against it shows up the hypocrisy in the Tory party, which is quite prepared to tolerate and promote other forms of exploitation.


This contradiction between attacking slavery and tolerating, or even participating, in ‘wage slavery’ and the exploitation of paid employees, was one of the criticisms made against many of the Abolitionists in both Britain and America, like William Wilberforce. Wilberforce’s critics made the point that it was hypocritical of him to attack Black slavery for its cruel exploitation of other human beings, when he himself exploited the ‘factory slaves’ toiling for him. The same point was made by the defenders of slavery in the southern states of the US against northern abolitionists, as they pointed out the appalling conditions for the workers in the northern factories. This isn’t an argument for tolerating slavery. It is an argument for ending the exploitation of nominally free workers. It’s why the British Anti-Slavery Society also published pamphlets attacking what it considered to be exploitative labour conditions in Britain, such as the employment of children beyond a certain maximum number of hours.

And some of the recent developments in workforce conditions worry me, as they are extremely close to real slavery. Mike mentions student debt. In America, Obama passed legislation stating that graduates cannot even declare themselves bankrupt to clear themselves of it. These debts may reach something like £30-40,000 and above. I’ve even seen it suggested that the total student debt for a medical student may reach £70,000, putting a career as a doctor or surgeon beyond most people’s ability to pay. But if they cannot clear the debt as they would others, then it becomes a particularly heavy, persistent burden. It only needs for another US president, guided no doubt by a donor in the financial sector, to declare that the debt should be made hereditary so they can recoup their investment, and you have debt slavery, exactly as it exists in India, Pakistan and other parts of the world.


And then there’s the welfare to work industry. Standing in his Precariat Charter also devotes pages to attacking this form of exploitation. And this is also trembling on the edge of real slavery. Under existing legislation, a sanctioned individual may be forced to work, even though they are receiving no benefits. This is surely slavery.

The exploitative nature of workfare is tied to a very proprietorial attitude by the upper classes towards the unemployed. The Tories and other advocates of similar reforms have the attitude that because the unemployed and other recipients of benefits are being supported by the state, they have certain obligations to the state beyond ordinary citizens, a notion that has extended into a form of ownership. Thus we have the imposition of the bedroom tax, levied on a fictitious ‘spare room subsidy’ that does not exist. One of the madder peers declared that the unemployed should have to publish accounts of their expenditure, like public departments and MPs. And the whole notion of workfare is that the unemployed are getting something for nothing, and so should be forced to do something for the pittance they are receiving.

Ultimately, all these attitudes derive from the sense of feudal superiority instilled in the Tories as members of the upper classes, and which causes them to persist in seeing the rest of us as their serfs, who owe deference and toil to them as our social superiors. Workfare can even be seen as a contemporary form of corvee, the system of labour obligations to a serf’s lord that existed in feudalism. The feudal landlord in this case, is Sainsbury’s or whichever of the various firms and charities have chosen to participate in the scheme.

May’s right to attack slavery. But it’s long past high time that these other forms of exploitation, and the attitude of class snobbery and entitlement behind them, were removed as well.

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6 Responses to “Theresa May Attacks Slavery, but Happy with Other Forms Exploitation”

  1. joanna Says:

    Hi Beast, this is particularly depressing for me, because if I bring up benefits to a particular person I know, he will automatically jump on it and state that his taxes are paying people money to do nothing, (and he is quite vociferous in his resentment), even though he knows about my near death starvation, twice when I was a child!

    The second time, I was diligently doing YTS’s for £28 per week, 2/3 of which I had to pay rent because I was 16yrs and kicked out of “care”, Thatcher had said that under 18’s could not get full benefits, and the social services told me they had ran out of money.

    Anyway back to where I was, this person says that every person in the country can do some work, I don’t know anymore how to argue the point, perhaps because I feel too broken by life! I am trying so hard every day to hang on, but having no family, it isn’t easy.

    I daren’t even broach the subject of the fact, that people on benefits pay a lot of taxes with VAT I might get my head ripped off!

    When I did have some confidence I said that I thought workfare was so wrong, to which he no more wrong than him having to pay for my benefits with his taxes. I don’t talk about it anymore!!

    • beastrabban Says:

      I’ve had the same experience arguing with some of the Tories I’ve known, and you just can’t win with them. I do plan on putting up a piece pointing out the problems, inequality and sheer absence of justice in workfare. As I said, Guy Standing devotes several pages to it arguing for its abolition in his book, A Precariat Charter. I think you’re quite right not talking to him about the subject anymore. It’s just not worth it. When you do argue with people like that, you’re only upsetting yourself.

      There are counterarguments to what he’s saying, though I doubt he’d find them convincing. As for him arguing that he’s paying for people to do nothing, there are several ways to tackle this. Firstly, the 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin argued against the payment of wages in his book, The Conquest of Bread. His attitude was that wealth was produced by society as a whole, so it was wrong and unjust to try and give people small pieces of it, as represented by wages. He was an Anarcho-Communist, and his attitude was that people should have equal access to all goods available in society, whatever their station. If wealth is socially produced, then the poor, as members of society, should have an equal right to share in this wealth. It also isn’t the case that he alone is paying for the maintenance of the unemployed. Many of them have also contributed to their upkeep through paying their taxes and social security contributions through National Insurance when they were working, quite apart from the VAT you mentioned. Finally, Rawls argued in his A Theory of Justice, that you needed a welfare state to look after others as this is what you would want for yourself. Or at least, that’s what I understand he said from what I’ve read. As for everyone being capable of some work, clearly that’s not true. The terminally ill can’t work, nor can people in a persistent vegetative state. And many people can’t work, because there aren’t the jobs around, or, if they are sick and disabled, employers are either unwilling or unable to make the adaptations necessary to allow them to perform a job. It is unfair to make someone starve simply for being unable to work for circumstances beyond their control.

      Not that any of this would have any effect on this charmer, especially if he carries on with his tirades despite knowing how you nearly starved. I don’t know, but he sounds extremely obnoxious, and probably best avoided if you can help it.

  2. joanna Says:

    I feel like humpty dumpty, only I don’t know how to live anymore!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Nah, you’re not like Humpty Dumpty, Jo. You’re a survivor. I’ve met a number of people like you, including women suffering from depression, who have lived in hospices for the homeless. They’ve managed to do all right in the end, and I’m sure you will too. I’m impressed by the fact that you’ve done voluntary work out of your own initiative. It seems to me that you are quite resilient and with a lot of potential. It’s just frustrating and depressing when life seems to throw everything it can at you. The only thing to do is to grit your teeth and carry on, in the hope that things will get better. I know it’s easy said, but it’s still good advice. It’s what keeps millions of people in this country going every day, I would imagine. And bear in mind that the terrible view you may have of yourself and the world when depressed really is a distortion brought on by the illness. It isn’t reality, and, however, plausible it appears when you’re down, shouldn’t be taken as such. I’m sure that you’ve got a lot more going for you than you give yourself credit for.

  3. joanna Says:

    Thank you so much for this!! It has helped me feel more positive, I just wish I knew what to do next!

    About my education I have passed all of the information onto my local Councillor, despite the fact he is Lib Dem. He has promised me that he will either try to do something about it or he will try to take it further for me.

    He has told me, because I was made a ward of the courts in 1976, my case should have continued to be reviewed even as an adult. He has said that it it so overdue that he might be able to get something done soon, if he can’t I am going to knock on the door of every solicitor in this land, because I was used as a commodity and that is very wrong (at least in my mind). I have never costed the state a penny because of criminal behaviour. I just want to live a productive life!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Jo – I’m glad I could be of some help. I hope your Lib Dem councillor can do something for you. And it’s very clear from what you’ve posted that you do want to live your life as a productive citizen. I think with your voluntary work, you are definitely putting something back into society, even if it may not be properly appreciated. You’re not alone. As I said, I’ve met other women like you, who’ve suffered similar problems, who also want to live a good life as a decent citizen. I also think you’ve done very well not to get caught up in crime, as that happens all too often to people, who have been brought up in care. I can remember talking to a Black friend, who was very active in his community trying to improve conditions there, and he told me how much of a problem it was for Black youngsters. Not that the problem’s confined to them, by any means.

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