Exploiting the Poor and Powerless: Forced Labor Systems in the Early and Later Modern World

By Drew Liquerman
2016, Vol. 8 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

Our world has witnessed significant shifts, transformations, and evolution in government systems, the balance of power among nations, economics, the rights of men and women, and social structures and relationships over the past 500 years. However, the plight of the poor and powerless worker has remained static. Societies blessed by climate, latitude, disease resistance, powerful militaries, and a little bit of luck have used this opportunity to exploit others. Throughout recorded history, nations and cultures have taken advantage of the cheap or free labor of conquered areas or the downtrodden in their own country.

Beginning in the 16th century, exploitation by powerful imperialist western nations became the new world order, resulting in pervasive exploitation of native populations and the inhumane treatment and deaths of millions of people. Imperialist nations forced indigenous populations into compulsory work or slave labor to exploit the natural resources of their lands, impervious to their suffering. Man’s inhumanity to man, as exemplified by the continual inhumane treatment of the poor and powerless to work for the riches of others has not changed over the past 500 years. However, in the past 50 years, the subjugator has shifted from imperialist western countries to wealthy third-world countries dealing in human trafficking.

Man’s inhumanity to man, as exemplified by the continual inhumane treatment of the poor and powerless, has not changed over the past 500 years.

Forced labor throughout the centuries is explored in Antonio Vazquez de Espinosa’s Mercury Mining in Huanacavelica and Silver Mining in Potosi (1620s), Heinrich von Fuch’s Notes on the Treatment of the Natives in Northeast Siberia (1744), Edward D. Morel’s The Black Man’s Burden (1920), and Voice of Bangladeshi Bloggers’ Bangladeshi Workers in Kuwait (2008). While each of these primary sources was written in different centuries, all report on the plight of the forced or effectively forced laborer.

In Mercury Mining, de Espinosa, a Spanish monk in South America, reports his observations of the cruelty imposed under the mita labor system. Although the Incas used this forced labor system prior to the Spanish conquest, Spain’s rapid total exploitation of the mines caused significant diminution in the indigenous labor force. De Espinosa, writing from the perspective of a religious man sympathetic to humanity, uses his writings to inform the uninformed in Europe. In Notes, Von Fuch, a political exile of the Russian Empire, reports to Russian authorities the hardships imposed upon the local populations, in the hope of changing their conditions. Because he is a political exile, he is writing from the perspective and bias of someone not agreeing with the politics of the empire.

However, his report is detailed and factual, and if true, provides a more objective analysis of the situation. Edward Morel, a European clerk and social activist, writes from the perspective of a sympathizer of the rights of native Africans. In Burden, he writes of the inhumanity imposed upon the African to bring attention to imperial abuses of the indigenous populations. In Bangladeshi Workers, bloggers use the power of the global internet to report human rights abuses imposed upon Bangladeshi workers by Kuwait.

Beginning with the discovery of the Americas and the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa in the 15th century, powerful nations raced to acquire land and resources. Spain looked to the rich silver mine in Potosi to fund its religious wars and expanding empire. Although Arab Muslims had already subjugated Saharan and some sub-Saharan lands, the Europeans colonized sub-Saharan Africa, using indigenous workers to exploit the lands for natural resources, leaving disaster in their wake. Beginning in the 16th century, the Russian Empire annexed Siberia, exploiting native labor to fund the empire. In modern times, wealthy nations such as Kuwait have continued the long-standing inhumane treatment of a powerless labor force, and human trafficking has now become the modern equivalent of forced labor of the indigenous.

Over the centuries, the exploitation of forced labor has numerous commonalities. The subjugator is a more powerful nation seeking to increase their riches and power through cheap labor of those they deem subservient. Second, the social structures of the workers and their societies are uprooted. Third, the workers are subject to disease, sickness, and death. Fourth, the exploitive nations take all and give nothing in return. Although the labor migration system in Kuwait differs from the forced labor systems of the Europeans, similarly, Kuwait exploits the desperately poor with inhumane conditions, resulting in similar consequences.

Throughout history, it is the stronger nation, the nation believing indigenous peoples of its colonies to be subservient and something less than human, that forces the local populations into labor for the empire’s benefit. The Potosi silver mine was discovered in 1545, and that mine, in conjunction with the Huanacavelica mine was exploited by Spain to fund its empire. “His Majesty” gave the mine owners the “right to the mita” of thousands of native peoples (de Espinosa 139).

The natives were rounded up by local Spanish officials and forced to work in shifts of two to four months under hazardous conditions for little pay. Similarly, beginning in the 16th century and lasting for three centuries, the Russian Empire forced natives from Siberia into labor to fund its empire. The empire relied heavily upon income from the fur trade and also needed labor to transport provisions for the Kamchatka Expedition. The empire and local officials required the local populations to pay tribute through furs and levies and provide gifts to officials (von Fuch 134-136).

Leopold II of Belgium exploited the resources and population of the Congo in the 19th century, resulting in the deaths and torture of millions of Congolese. Unlike Potosi or Siberia, Leopold ran the Congo similar to a private venture. In contemporary times, it is not necessarily the imperialist state or ruler controlling and exploiting a distant land. In our global economy, wealthy countries with lax labor laws in need of cheap labor have become the subjugators. In Kuwait, a wealthy Arab state, Bangladeshi workers, among others, are trafficked to Kuwait upon the promise of work, only to end up in squalid living conditions with no “basic human rights” (Bangladeshi Bloggers 379-381).

A commonality of forced labor systems, regardless of the century, is the devastation it imparts on the social structure. In 17th century South America, the indigenous population was forced into labor and away from their families for two or four months at a time, and many “villages [were] being depopulated” due to death or resettlement (de Espinosa 139). In Siberia, peasants were forced into transporting provisions for 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers, were “away from their homes for as long as three years” and upon return, if they returned, had to “live on charity or hiring themselves out” (von Fuch 133).

The policy of collecting levy from survivors caused such “impoverishment” that the natives “hung or drown themselves” and sometimes had to “pawn their wives and children” (von Fuch 134). In 19th century Congo, the devastation on the family was no less. Leopold’s capitalistic venture for rubber in the Congo caused millions of deaths and the displacement of native Congolese, a heavy toll “upon child-bearing,” and “melancholy resulting from separation from home” (Morel 234). In 21st century Kuwait, the impoverished laborers trafficked into Kuwait similarly must leave their home for extended periods, sometimes never to return, and usually under the guise of fair pay. Although these forced labor systems occurred in different centuries and under different conditions, there was significant negative impact to the social structures of the poorer society.

Another detriment of forced labor systems has been the devastation of populations due to disease and sickness. Many of the native populations had no immunity to smallpox, and as a result, disease spread quickly. In South America, smallpox was responsible for significant deaths among the native populations. In Siberia, “[n]ative peoples also suffered from smallpox and other migrant-borne diseases to which they had no resistance,” and “[w]hen they are stricken with smallpox they die like flies” (von Fuch 133-134). Similarly, the Congolese did not have natural immunity to European diseases. Morel notes, that the Congolese were “engaged in a perpetual struggle against disease” (234). These diseases caused significant devastation, not only to the forced laborers, but as it spread to families and communities, decimated whole populations. Today in Kuwait, laborers are forced to live in squalid conditions, with little or no health care.

All of the primary sources recognize the powerless worker was exploited solely for the benefit of the wealthier nation. All is taken from the poor and powerless; nothing is given. In 17h and early 18th century South America, approximately 326,000,000 assay pesos were taken by the Spanish. The natives were “carried off in chains” when a quota could not be attained, earned barely a pittance of 4 reals each day, and forced to the mine “every Monday” and after “each has eaten his ration” they stay in the mine until Saturday, “the poor fellows loaded down with ore,” subject to the evil of the superintendents (de Espinosa 138- 139).

The Siberians fared no better than the South Americans. The Russian Empire used forced labor to obtain furs, transport goods for soldiers and officials on expeditions, and other government projects. The sales of the furs obtained through the forced tribute system provided approximately 10 % of the empire’s revenue during the 1600s (von Fuch 133). In return, the native population was exploited, abused, tortured, and sickened. The officials, who requisitioned horses from the native population to use for transportation, burdened “the Irkutsk in every possible way to enrich themselves” (von Fuch 134). The levy collections were so harsh, the natives became “so impoverished that before I left they had had to forfeit all their livestock and horses, and sometimes pawn their wives and children” (von Fuch 134). Many drowned or hanged themselves from the despair. Russia took everything the land and the native peoples possessed, and left them with nothing.

In the 19th century, Leopold exploited the resources and people of the Congo, leaving them with nothing. As Morel notes, “in the process of imposing his political dominion over Africa, the white man has carved broad and bloody avenues from one end of Africa to the other” (Morel 233). In order to gain valuable rubber to fund his own capitalistic interests, Leopold and his “capitalistic imperialism” imposed “monotonous, uninterrupted labor….involving…severance from natural surroundings” (Morel 233).

Morel notes that the African’s chances of “effective resistance have been steadily dwindling with the increasing perfectibility in the killing power of modern armament, and that through the European “trinity of imperialism, capitalistic exploitation, and militarism,” the African population will go the way of other decimated populations in the world (Morel 234-235). Leopold took everything and gave nothing to the poor and powerless Congolese workers.

A transformation of the forced labor system has occurred over the past fifty years. With the expanding global economy, ending of the cold war, and ending of colonial rule, Modern-day exploitation of the poor and powerless worker occurs in a much different context than in past centuries (Pomeranz et al. 378). The contemporary version of forced labor involves human trafficking for sex or cheap labor in China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In Kuwait, workers are brought in from Bangladesh and other poor nations such as India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines, with the promise of work, and “they are immediately stripped of their passports” (Bangladeshi Bloggers 379).

Many of these individuals work grueling hours for just cents an hour and provided with squalid living quarters. If they protest their treatment, they “are beaten and threatened with arrest and forcible deportation” (Bangladeshi Bloggers 379). As the Bloggers report, “Kuwaiti companies have cheated these poor laborers and denied them of basic human rights” (379). The Bloggers assert that Kuwait is a wealthy country and there is no reason not to treat these workers with dignity. Unfortunately, the same could have been said for the forced labor by imperial nations in prior centuries.

The human desire for power and money shows little regard for society’s downtrodden. Although the circumstances of forced labor may be changing, the human dynamic governing these relationships and the irreparable harm caused upon the powerless remains the same. The world has seen great changes in the past five hundred years. The European Enlightenment and its philosophers’ writings on the natural rights of man, and documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man recognize the inherent equality of all men. Unfortunately, some nations, societies, and peoples only believe these rights apply to them, but not others they deem less human than themselves.


Bangladeshi Bloggers. Bangladeshi Workers in Kuwait (2208). Excerpt in Pomeranz et al. Pages 378-382.

De Espinosa, Vazquez. Mercury Mining in Huanacavelica and Silver Mining in Potosi (1620s). Excerpt in Pomeranz et al. Pages 137-140.

Morel, E.D. The Black Man’s Burden (1920). Excerpt in Pomeranz et al. Pages 232-235.

Pomeranz, Kenneth, James Given, and Laura Mitchell. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, A Companion Reader, Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2011. Print.

Von Fuch, Heirich. Notes on the Treatment of the Natives in Northeast Siberia (1744). Excerpt in Pomeranz et al. Pages133-136.

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