Strategy and Reputation: the Big Business of Slave Labor On 21st Century Projects #reputation #strategy / by John Schlichter


"The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear." Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC)

Is the use of slave labor on large infrastructure projects a real thing in this day and age? Indeed it is. One may be forgiven for overlooking slavery as a valid strategy transparently situated and socially accomplished by sanctioned parties to develop the physical structures intrinsic to modern society. But this strategy-as-practice that turns people into property to erect our public works is a global standard. Over 20 million men, women, and children are trapped in forced labor worldwide, generating over $40 billion annually in profits for their captors. One would expect slavers everywhere to garner nasty reputations in the process, but they are glorified for roads and reservoirs, fabrications and fundaments, and pipelines and parks.


Across America every single day, more than 800,000 prisoners are forced to work without any choice in the matter. Whether prison labor constitutes slave labor has been an ongoing debate in the United States ever since the 13th amendment both abolished slavery and legalized it in the case of prisoners. Slavery was deemed despicable unless the slave owner was the state, in which case slavery was not only righteous but profitable. Beyond America's borders, slave-based business strategies abound unencumbered by this cognitive dissonance, and cities the world over are built by slaves provisioned by merchants to municipalities. Evidenced by the extent to which the public takes it for granted internationally (or fails to recognize it), slavery is a global institution.

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I have witnessed it firsthand, auditing megaprojects that used unskilled Chinese prisoners who had been shipped from China to other countries as compulsory labor camps. With no other pedigree than imprisonment, they were conscripted to build roads and bridges under harsh conditions on behalf of the state actors importing them. This open secret only came to my attention as I forced my way through layers of subcontracting to investigate the root causes of rampant quality issues on behalf of a client. I was not the first to learn bridges were failing because they had been built by slaves no more skilled in architecture than astrophysics. I was merely the first to report it to my client, recognizing that the project teams, project sponsors, and even the public were complicit.

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Slavers run a gauntlet of public perception, parrying issues of legitimacy and efficacy arbitrated by what the ancient Greeks called the polis and we know as the body of citizens. Do you care who builds your bridges provided they get you from A to B? More to the point, who makes the slavers' reputations: do they or do you? As conceits of the collective consciousness, reputations reflect social mores, just as the choices you make regarding the reputations you assign others reflect you. The matter is thrown into sharp relief by the dramatic realities of human bondage, begging the question "Who is the criminal in this endeavor?" The prisoners? Their wardens? The sellers? The buyers? The beneficiaries? The bystanders? You and me?

Dostoevsky said the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. But we need look no further than our roads, rails, tunnels, and bridges. State-sponsored servitude will collapse in an instant when the public’s consent is withdrawn. In the words of La Boétie, "Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.” Once you resolve not to serve those who reduce people to objects, you will experience true freedom and, hopefully, the respect you deserve.

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