The new Pope has come out and called the conditions of Bangladeshi workers like the 400 tragically killed in a building collapse last week ‘slave labour,’ and he’s right.*
Let's be clear. He’s not right because ‘not paying a fair wage’ and ‘only looking to make a profit’ are things that ‘go against God.’ Here, I’m firmly on the side of Matt Yglesias’ posts on the subject (which were widely criticised). Essentially, there’s a tradeoff between work safety and employment/wages. As Bangladeshis get more productive, they’re going to work less, and they’re going to be willing to give up some of their rising wages in order to make their workplaces safer. This will happen, just like it happened in the UK in the 19th and early 20th century, and just like it happened in China over the past couple of decades. Until it does, we should be wary of imposing higher labour standards, because poor Bangladeshis probably prefer long hours and unsafe conditions to reduced wages. Once Bangladeshis get richer and more productive, working conditions will improve – and government legislation will likely follow the improvement in conditions rather than lead it.
Rather, the Pope is right because the Bangladeshis are slaves in another way. Or, more accurately, they’re serfs. Back in the days when the Pope had significant lands and armies, Europe was ruled by feudal lords. Peasants working on the land weren’t slaves – the lords didn’t own them – but there were tight legal restrictions on their freedom to move to the next farm over. That meant lords didn’t have to compete for labour – you couldn’t just work for someone else who offered better wages and conditions, which meant there was little incentive for your current lord to offer you better wages and conditions. It hurt the economy, too, as people were unable to work where they would be most productive.
Of course, serfdom is complete anathema today. It’s obvious to everyone that the feudal system was destructive and immoral. Nothing like that could ever happen now. Right?
Imagine that there are a large number of corporations who would love to hire Bangladeshi workers at fair wages and with good conditions. If the Bangladeshi employers wanted to keep their workers, they would have to pay higher wages and provide better working conditions.
This isn't just a hypothetical. These companies do exist. Sadly, however, they’re mostly based in North America and Europe. There are legal restrictions on where Bangladeshis are allowed to live and work which prevent them from working for said companies, stifling competition. That's what makes the Bangladeshi's willing to accept the bad wages and working conditions - they have no alternative. As long as serfdom is allowed to persist, the serfs won’t have much chance of earning a fair wage in a safe environment.
On the other hand, feudalism long ago ceased to exist. So maybe there’s some hope that things will improve.
*It’s worth noting that the building itself was illegal under existing Bangladeshi law. Like the Pope, I’m going to focus more on wider issues of labour exploitation in Bangladesh.