Freedom & Liberty,  Pakistan

A modest proposal: Humayon Dar on slavery

Dar’s recent article, published in the Express Tribune, opens:

It is politically incorrect to argue for efficiency of slavery or its modern form, bonded labour, but following the academic tradition set by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L Engerman in their fiercely debated book “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery” (1974), there is some room to debate the issue in the context of Pakistan.

What a bizarre starting point.  Why even bring in ‘efficiency’ – arguments against slavery are not generally predicated on its inefficiency.  He goes on to suggest that we need to be more precise about what we mean by slavery, using an example which suggests he might think academic tenure is a kind of slavery.

Also, careful use of nomenclature may also help in diluting the negative perception of slavery and bonded labour. In many Asian countries (eg Japan), loyalty has traditionally been rewarded in the form of long (or even life time) contracts to industrial workers and employees of organisations of all sizes and in all sectors.

The arguments in favour of bonded labour seem similar to those which were sometimes used to justify slavery – vague assertions that the alternatives may be even worse:

In many cases, the bonded labour arrangements work for the mutual benefit of the parties, the employer and the worker and their families. In case of a possible loss of employment or when such bonded labourers run away, in most instances they end up begging on roads in big cities. The more fortunate ones end up serving as domestic workers in relatively less affluent urban areas where amount of work takes precedence over its quality.

Dar concludes that banning or legislating against bonded labour would not be ‘efficient’.  Here is one account of the effects of bonded labour on workers, including children, in Pakistan.  I’m sure there is room for an interesting debate about how to define the parameters of ‘slavery’, but Dar’s cool detachment from the moral and ethical questions raised by slavery/bonded labour, and from the experiences of those who must endure it, seems quite extraordinary.

Hat tip: @goddessyndicate