Prawns, slavery and racism

After recovering from the shock of the inhumanity of the Thai prawn slavery story, I began to consider its implications for the ‘phenomenon’ of slavery more broadly. While the passing of some 150 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States has many of us in the Western world convinced that slavery is a thing of the past, in fact slavery has been alive and well in the form of human trafficking. And this is no news to human rights advocates.

But while human rights is not my field of expertise, race and migration are. Much of the debate in racism studies has centred around its role in the trade and enslavement of tens of millions of men, women and children from the African continent in the Americas. One school of thought, which can be exemplified by the work of Barbara Jeanne Fields, argues that race was merely a tool (later to become an ‘ideology’) used to justify the exploitation of large numbers of vulnerable people for purely economic purposes. Vast American plantations required huge manpower, but the transportation of export products to Britain was expensive. Slavery was a means to a financial end, rather than a product of innate hatred of African ‘savages’. After all, if white man truly believed that the inhabitants of Africa were no better than monkeys or dogs, there would not have been so much ‘miscegenation’.

Modern slavery seems to support this theory. Indeed, the Thai prawn slavery tragedy is the epitome of such economic opportunism. Free labour. Low costs. Cheap prawns. And there is no immediate racial difference between slave and master here.

But upon closer investigation the situation is more complex. The Guardian reports that many of the slaves are Burmese men, who pay migrant brokers (human traffickers) to transport them to Thailand, where easy jobs and high pay are promised to await them.

If in fact the Burmese were viewed by their Thai neighbours as ‘racial’ – or ‘ethnic’ – Others, what implications would this have for our understanding of racism and slavery?

Contemporary Thai-Burmese relations are deeply rooted in history. Thai perceptions of Burma as a ‘devilish nation’ are a result of hundreds of years of military rivalry between the two civilisations. ‘Ask any Thai student who Thailand’s enemy Number One is. The answer will inevitably be Burma,’ claims Kavi Chongkittavorn. Burma also tends to be viewed by Thais as inferior, lagging behind in economic development, human rights protection and democracy. Although phenotypically not a ‘black and white’ distinction, the nations of South East Asia view each other as fundamentally ‘ethnically’ different.

Still, we cannot escape the fact that these Burmese migrants or refugees are vulnerable, and therefore highly exploitable. And we have no way of knowing whether the same exploitation would be occurring were they ethnically Thai.

But is there something about the Other that makes them particularly easy to exploit? Or why is it that this exploitation is particularly easy to legitimate? While these certainly aren’t the most urgent issues to come out of the Thai prawn slavery fiasco, they are important questions for global society and for understanding and preventing exploitation of vulnerable groups.

Today the University of Bristol Institute for Advanced Studies hosts the event ‘Slavery: Legacies and Remembrance’. The effect of the slave trade on the city of Bristol and racism in Britain today is apparent, and should be discussed bravely and openly. But we must not fall into the trap of assuming that slavery is merely a ghost of the past. Or that what goes on in the ‘Orient’ should be dismissed as having no sociological meaning, as though we are not of the same humanity. Examining the sociology of modern day slavery could add to our understanding of the global history of slavery and the battle to rid the world of slavery now and into the future.


(Image source: xinmsn news)


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