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Global Capitalism Begets Global Slavery

In 1930, the International Labour Organization set a goal to eradicate forced work. Today, 21 million people are exploited around the world. Globalization is making matters worse.

In this file photo (2005), exploitative labor at a brick factory in the Indian state of Punjab
In this file photo (2005), exploitative labor at a brick factory in the Indian state of Punjab
Alexander Hagelüken

-OpEd-

MUNICH — They toil in mines, factories and on construction sites. They are exploited as sex and domestic workers against their will. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are nearly 21 million forced laborers worldwide. Forced labor is "fundamentally evil, but hugely profitable," says the ILO's director.

This is where we can moan about all the ills of this world, or hope that slowly things will somehow get better. But the ILO has been around for 100 years. ILO member states decided "to eradicate forced or compulsory labor in all its forms as soon as possible" — in 1930.

New divide

Today the ILO has some 200 member states, and there are still at least 21 million effective slaves on the planet.

In our modern world an interesting division appears to be evolving. There are few limits to the exchange of goods, and national economies are growing. The result is growing wealth. Globalization is subject to increasing numbers of international rules concerning trade and investment. Violators of these rules must face a court of arbitration and risk high fines. But this principle only applies to economic rules. Social abuses are another, often unpunished, matter. Globalization hobbles along on one leg — the economic one.

Meanwhile, the social leg is broken.

It's undeniable that the lives of many people around the globe have improved over the last few decades. In democratic countries, the citizens themselves have seen to that. And institutions such as the International Labour Organization have negotiated a series of important agreements that are legally binding for their members. But the inevitable question they raise is how many of these well-intentioned objectives actually become reality?

As early as 1919, the first minimum age was decided in the attempt to reduce child labor. Since 1949 workers have supposedly been able to organize themselves without hindrance. And yes, women are supposed to earn as much as men — that's been around since 1951. But these principles are still so far from being applied universally.

Anyone who violates trade agreements feels the sharp sword of international law. And anybody who endangers a company's investments risks getting slapped with compensation payments in the billions. Critics of the EU's trade agreement with the United States fear that it's going to be gone after lock, stock and barrel because of environmental and health standards. But the contrast between the harsh sanctions for abuse of globalization's economic rules and the weak consequences for abuse of social rules is huge.

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Child labor in Nepal - Photo - Krish Dulal

Standing behind the economic principles are powerful institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Behind the social principles? The UN and its fine declarations. Incidentally, according to the UN's so-called millennium goals, hunger and extreme poverty are supposed to have gone the way of the dinosaur by the end of next year.

Why do economic rules get international priority? Because of companies that want to do business and are able to penetrate governments better than amorphous masses of citizens whose voices can't be heard. It's also because firm rules for developing a market economy result in multiplying wealth and therefore help everyone, whereas social rules tend to pose limitations. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton learned that in 1999 when he tried to introduce social standards into world trade talks. Many countries, including many poor ones, regarded the move as subterfuge for protectionism instead of a good deed.

It's clear by now that a broadened market economy has increased global wealth. But as globalization has in many cases increased rather than diminished inequality, it's obvious that any notion of market economies curing social ills is antiquated. So then why does a worldwide organization with the teeth to address social issues still sound crazy?

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