An Ethical Approach to Structural Exploitation
Social scientists have long recognized that certain structural features of the economy and society disadvantage and subordinate particular social groups in ways that increase their likelihood of being exploited. Philosophers, for their part, have tended to analyze exploitation in terms of distinct transactions between two agents. This neglect of the structural causes of exploitation has led many ethicists to overlook the harms inherent in a number of common social practices, such as low-paid migrant labour, unpaid caregiving and sex work.
Dr. Monique Deveaux, Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Global Social Change, believes a structural understanding of exploitation is needed to judge whether work is exploitative, and in what ways. Policymakers and citizens sometimes need to decide whether it would be best to prohibit, decriminalize or regulate work or social practices that have exploitative features. A fuller understanding of the structural causes and character of exploitation would be relevant to these decisions, yet is often lacking.
For example, Canada’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (2014) denounces the exploitation of persons who sell sexual services, but does not define exploitation or outline its causes. The Act has also been criticized for not incorporating sex workers’ accounts of what makes them vulnerable to harm.
Deveaux and her research team are working on showing how a structural approach to exploitation can acknowledge the experiences and agency of people who are involved in work that is often deemed exploitative. They will also suggest policies that may reduce the susceptibility of subordinated social groups to exploitative work.