The Age Of Slavery As A Service


If you are wondering what the hell the title of the article has to do with the picture ? Let me assure you I am going to talk about remote work, the digital age and slavery.

This thought started boggling me when I was a freelance programmer a few years ago. I had to start from scratch and build a reputation. So I naively tried to get a few gigs from online remote work platforms like Elance (Now Upwork).

It was the first time I truly realized there was a huge and profitable market for cheap remote labour. I would see these job listings paying for as little as 10 or 5$ per hour. Who would accept working for this rate ? Easy to find out, just looking at the majority of the proposals on those websites: people from poor countries.

Then the thought crossed my mind again when I read about the Apple-Foxconn scandal. Of course Apple builds amazing and beautiful products that people love to buy. They surpass themselves to invent new stuff every year. But how else would they squeeze the maximum profits to make their shareholders happy other than cheap remote labour ?

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing personal against Apple. I don’t like them as I don’t like many other companies. This is not about one company in particular.

What these two examples (Apple and Upwork) have in common is taking advantage of cheap, unfair and unethical human labour. In other terms: Slavery.

Now you might argue Slavery is an economic system that involves owning people as a property. Those people from cheap labour countries are not owned or traded. They have the freedom of choice, although debatable .

This is true if we base our definition of Slavery on past history.

When I think about all major civilizations in the past, every civilization reached it’s golden age using slavery.

If you force a big enough number of human labour into a miserable life, you can build wonders like Pyramids and conquer continents.

Or like Louis CK says:

Of course slavery is the worst thing that ever happened to human history. But maybe every incredible human achievement was done with slaves. — Louis CK

We are now at the golden age of our civilization. The incredible time of information technology. Technology that pledges to make all humans life better. Technology that should be used to avoid making the same mistakes we made at every try of building a civilization in the past.

But I can’t help but feel the bitter taste after a grandiose speech of Ray Kurzweil promising to reach the “singularity” like those ads about pills that magically make you lose weight.

Slavery as we knew it in the past might have been abolished today. We no longer allow ourselves to own other humans as a property.

No, as true capitalists, we had to find a better business model for slavery. One that is more scalable and profitable.

Buying a slave is cheaper than owning it. If you own a cat and it has kittens, it cost nothing. But then consider the cost of raising them- food, shelter, training, entertainment- all of which you are responsible for until the day they all die or you give them away/sell them. They are 100% your responsibility.

Now if you, say, pay a friend $20 to borrow the cat for a few months until you can get rid of a rodent problem, without the need to worry about feeding and sheltering him. Then get rid of him when you’re done. You would have spent much less money.

Who would accept this other than poor people ?

This is what I call “Slavery As A Service”. Today you can buy labour for 5$ with the click of a mouse. You no longer need to import slaves to do the dirty work. You can do it without feeling any guilt. After all your are using technology, to make a minority of people’s life better. Who cares about the rest ?

Is this really the civilization we are building ? Did we abstract so much things with technology that we finally abstracted slavery …


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Thanks to Christophe Romana for the review