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What do we owe the victims of exploitation?

In this post, Erik Malmqvist and András Szigeti discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the remedial duties arising from exploitation.

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.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.



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  1. Louis Larue

    Thanks a lot for this insightful summary!
    I was wondering whether a possible way to compensate those who suffer from exploitation could be to have some kind of guaranteed income. As you write, “the victim (of exploitation) is in no position to decline the exploiter’s offer”. Rather than compensating the exploited person, wouldn’t it be more just to make sure that this person has a better alternative option, and so would be in a position to refuse the offer?
    This guaranteed income would not only help the exploited, it would also reduce the possibility of exploitation.
    It does not seem to me more difficult to raise taxes to pay for that guaranteed income, than to ask exploiters to compensate the exploited.
    Thanks again,

  2. Erik Malmqvist

    Dear Louis,

    Many thanks for your comment! You are absolutely right, improving the background conditions that make people vulnerable to exploitation by providing better options is a very important part dealing with exploitative transactions and relationships. We think of this as a preventive measure that is built into just social arrangements. It could take the shape of guaranteed income or be designed in many other ways.

    Unfortunately, decent background conditions are often not in place, and even they are they arguably do not remove all vulnerabilities that might make people vulnerable to exploitation. And so, remediation of the kind we discuss will sometimes be necessary – and more so the less ideal the conditions.

    Which approach – prevention or remediation – is more feasible probably depends on context. It is not clear to me that addressing background conditions will always be easier, but of course it may well be easier (and more effective) in some cases.


  3. Thomas Richers

    To my mind it all boils down to two age-old questions. What is a just price? And are consumers supposed to pay their way?

    Thomas Aquinas once refused to buy a valuable manuscript from a man who had to sell it due to hard times and asked a price that was clearly under value. Thomas Aquinas said that this was not a just price and that he couldn’t afford to pay a just price. That leaves the seller with the hope of finding someone else less scrupulous or someone who would be able and willing to pay the just price.

    In the modern world it is all about the externalisation of costs. I.e. almost everybody lets someone else pay the difference between the just (fully calculated) price and the price he can get away with.

    In the summary, the consumer is mentioned only once and the buck is supposed to stop at the multinationals. But in reality, it is the consumer who dictates what happens. If enough people band together to make wearing a fur coat unethical, fur coat sellers go out of business.

    Once people realise that Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Google, Facebook, etc. (or Nike, Gucci, and many of the pharmaceutical companies!) are destroying whole societies and that it is the consumer that was lured into playing along because he preferred free or lower-cost services and goods, then an alliance of paternalistic structures (the EU, for example) and morally upset customers will hopefully combine to tell consumers that they have to close the gap between what they were willing to pay and what the desired goods and services (should) really cost.

    It is this slow concatenation of actions that makes multinationals ensure that their supply chains are costed fairly so as to also benefit the woman in the sweatshop (which will eventually become a model factory inspiring others to spring up).

    We owe the victims of exploitation to end exploitation.

    The “we” is you and me. This is why I boycott Amazon, Uber and Airbnb and why I am waiting and hoping for the EU to come up with anti-trust legalislation, minimal wage standards and international taxation agreements for Google and Zuckerberg and their ilk because I am in the sweatshop of having to use their free services for lack of viable alternatives.

  4. Peter Oeregmaci

    Exploitation is a philosophical and economical category which is determined by Marx, especially in the 1st volume of the Capital. To translate Marx’s text: exploitation is to take away time from the exploited people, to take away material values and to take away the right to decide about the future of social production and means to take away the political rights of the working class who are exploited by the Capitalists. If we talk about the “compensation” of the working class, first of all, we can talk about the role of the political parties of the working class and the role of the state in the whole exploitation and compensation process (education, health care, regulated prices, social services, political rights and freedom). One can easily understand these, if he or she compare – let’s say, Sweden and Pakistan. But as the Capital is a global phenomenon, we can say that exploitation is also global. It means that the exploitation in itself cannot be compensated globally, it can be compensated only here and there, especially in the most developed countries and regions and only for a small part of the society. Think of the failure of the Medicare reforms in the USA. Do not forget, the compensation depends on the radicalisation of the working class and its parties. (Radicalisation partly means radical thinking, radical theories, radical philosophy.) So the compensation mostly nothing more or nothing less than the fight for the compensation, the fight for a better living standard, social status, fight for political freedom. compensation cannot be imagined without – to tell the whole truth street fights, moreover without revolutions and civil wars. The real compensation, as the XX century proved globally is and will be a bloody and painful revolutionary process. Can anybody imagine that in the Middle- or in South-America or in the Indian subcontinent or in Africa the exploitation can be abolished without violence? So when we talk about on compensation we practically ask something else: is the Capital able to change its deepest nature? I think it won’t.

  5. Andras Szigeti

    When there is no consent by and no benefit for the exploitee: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50883161

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