We tend to think that exploiting people is morally wrong. And yet, this kind of wrong is uncomfortably close to home for many of us. Likely, the clothes you wear today or the computer you use to read this piece were produced by workers who received meagre pay for dangerous and exhausting work. Since exploitation is so widespread and not something most of us can wash our hands of, we have to ask what is required to set things straight after exploitation has happened. This is the question we have raised in a recent article.
A remarkable feature of exploitation is that victims can benefit and consent, and still be treated wrongly. It may be bad to work in a sweatshop, but worse still to be unable to provide for your family because you have no income. It may be demeaning to accept money to bear somebody else’s child, but worse still to reject the deal and see your own children starve. And so, workers and surrogate mothers may have good reasons agree to such arrangements.
This means that standard ways of thinking about compensation do not apply. Compensating victims of theft is primarily a matter of returning what was stolen or, more broadly, of restoring the situation they were in before the crime. But the victims of wrongful exploitation cannot be compensated in this way. Putting the sweatshop worker in the situation she was in before being employed would harm rather than help her. Instead, we propose that compensation requires additionally benefiting those who already benefited. Even when victims of exploitation are made better off they are denied something they are morally speaking entitled to. Correspondingly, exploiters secure some benefit to which they have no rightful claim. Compensation here is partly a matter of redistributing the exploiter’s gain to compensate the exploitees for their loss. In the sweatshop case, this would mean raising wages and improving working conditions.
That cannot be the whole story though, we think. Exploitation happens because the victim is in no position to decline the exploiter’s offer. For example, being unemployed while having a family to feed means that the offer of almost any job, even in a sweatshop, may be too good an opportunity to refuse. Exploiters seek to capitalize on such situations dictating the terms of their interaction with their victims. In effect, they treat another person’s vulnerability as a lever for profit-maximization. But that is not how you should relate to other people. And if you do, you will be implicated in a relationship which denies your weaker counterpart voice, recognition, and respect.
As we put it, victims of exploitation suffer relational harm. And this too must be remedied. Part of what is needed is a sincere apology and recognition of the wrong that was done. But perhaps even more important is the reduction of objectionable forms of vulnerability and the establishment of more egalitarian relationships. In the sweatshop case, this means protecting workers’ efforts to interact on more equal terms with their employers, for instance, by unionizing.
We note that such remedial actions may also be in the interest of exploiters. It is natural to focus on harms suffered by those who were exploited. However, exploitative relationships can be bad not only for the weaker party. In many cases, the erosion of trust and solidarity caused by exploitation constitutes a loss for the exploiters as well.
Another question concerns who should provide remedy to victims of exploitation. It might be tempting to think that since exploiters exploited the burden of remediation should also fall on them. But as we argued in earlier work, things are more complicated than that. This is because exploitative practices frequently involve various third parties. For instance, the sweatshop may be a subcontractor of a large multinational company. Moreover, the conduct of both these actors is influenced by consumers’ demand for cheap clothes, on the one hand, and facilitated by state institutions, on the other. We suggest that third parties can often be expected to shoulder part of the burden of remediation. In particular, those who collaborated with the exploiter, such as the multinational company subcontracting the sweatshop, should also collaborate with them in taking remedial action. For instance, the manufacturer might have to ensure that concrete safety measures are taken, employment contracts amended, and so on, whereas the multinational might have to provide funding and advice needed for these improvements.
So, while the philosophical debate about exploitation has focused on what makes exploitative transactions and relationships morally wrong, we suggest that this may not always be the most pressing question to ask. We might disagree as to why some arrangement is wrongfully exploitative, yet still agree that it is. And if we agree on this, we should want the victim to be compensated and made whole. From a practical standpoint, determining what is wrong with exploitation often seems less important than determining what should be done to remedy the harms it causes.
Hopefully, this brief discussion has already shown that the study of exploitation can have wide-ranging political and social implications. It is clear that the victims’ claim of redress cannot be resisted by simply saying, “look, you benefited and consented”. It is also clear that exploitation is a not just a lousy bargain that can be fixed by annulling the deal or redistributing the gain. Exploitative transactions are indeed bad deals for those at the shorter end of the stick, but exploitation also seriously harms the fabric of human relationships. Since few of us are likely to be entirely innocent of profiting from exploitation, repairing the harms it causes may be a task we all need to face up to.